Chapter 1: Provence
“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.”
“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.
The Countess turned to me, delight writ large upon her face. “You do remember!” she exclaimed.
I stepped away from the canvas. One heavy step. I breathed. Before I knew myself, I was asking how she had died.
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.
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.”
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?”
“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.”
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.
Chapter 2: A Face, Hung at a Window
“I understand,” the Countess said to me next morning. “I do understand. But I will miss your company.”
“It is kind of you to say so,” I murmured. Breakfast lay before me, untouched. I was impatient to depart, twitching, waiting only for word from the footman. The Countess buttered a roll deliberately and shot me a pointed glance.
“I dare say it is an important part of the profession,” she said. “Learning to make yourself agreeable.”
“Yes,” I agreed distantly.
“Whoever the client,” she went on. “However tiresome.”
I was barely listening. The delay troubled me. They had taken my trunk to the yard an hour since but there was no sign of a coach on the driveway. Héloïse was a whole hour closer. Five miles nearer. I wondered whether we would pass on the road, imagined the wrench of seeing her profile go by me, glass to glass. There was a point at which that would become inevitable, and that point advanced with every tick of the clock.
I heard the sharp crack of silverware on china and started. The Countess was scrutinising me, searching my features with narrowed eyes.
“What on earth is the matter?” she said at last. “Fidgeting in your pocket like an adolescent.”
My hand stilled. The glass of the miniature had become so warm I had not noticed. “Forgive me.” I felt shame rise violently into my throat, realising my appearance of ingratitude, abhorring myself for it. I could only shake my head in apology. “Forgive me. I did not sleep.”
The expression of my patroness softened, and I realised that what I had taken for anger was in fact disappointment. She sipped at her coffee quietly, her eyes downcast. “Well,” she said at last, “it is a long road to Aix. There will be plenty of time for that in the carriage.”
I managed a smile. “I hope so.”
Even as I spoke, Bérénice appeared in the doorway. She looked hesitant. Un-beckoned she beetled over to the Countess and whispered into her ear, her expression grave. Their conversation was urgent, murmured, their eyes flicking up to meet mine, and I felt my hands and feet grow very cold, as if my blood retreated from a danger that my senses could not yet perceive.
At last, the Countess sighed. “Very well,” she said. “I suppose he could not have known.” Bérénice marched out, leaving her mistress to drain her coffee. My breath was stoppered somewhere under my throat, and she spoke to the room at large.
“It seems a rider came from my niece’s party early this morning,” she announced. “One of their horses threw a shoe late last night and lamed itself.” I felt my heart begin to slow, my vision to recompose. “My coachman sent one of ours back with their man directly.”
I closed my mouth, felt how dry it had become. I swallowed, and found that I breathed more easily. “We won’t have a full team available until their carriage arrives, and even then…”
“I cannot leave,” I said. The phrase sounded, even to my ear, like relief.
The Countess’s eyes again betrayed their concerned curiosity. “Not today. I am sorry. Tomorrow at the earliest.” I could feel the sallowness of my skin, the tiredness around my eyes, my dry lips. I must have looked haggard. “Perhaps,” she said, kindly, “you should go upstairs, and try to get some rest.”
I nodded, thanked her, rose without further prompting. I walked easily. It was done. I had tried. “Would you be so good,” I asked at the door, “as to tell her I am here?”
I had tried.
I slept. Soundly and long. Bérénice woke me before noon, with coffee and reassurances that the carriage was not yet come, was not expected for hours. Then she woke me again with soup at two, and no further news.
“You had no breakfast,” she said, her face motherly.
I found to my surprise that I was hungry. And grateful for the company. So she stayed and chatted away to me pleasantly enough as I ate, though she looked at me strangely every so often, at my pallor, at the spoon twitching in my hands.
Finally, she asked, “She make you that nervous, then?”
The direct question took me by surprise. I did not know how to respond truthfully, so I quirked an eyebrow. “Have you met her?” I asked.
Bérénice crowed, rocking back on her hips. “A fair point well made,” she said, “And yes. But only once. Must be a good score of years back. Before she took orders.”
A spark of curiosity lit within me. “What did you make of her?” I asked.
“Well, she was nothing like her uncle,” she said. “Struck me the women in her family must have been forces of nature, all of them.”
“The ones I knew certainly were,” I replied. The light was beautiful, the first clear day for a while. A sudden urge overtook me. “Is there a way into the gardens from the back staircase, Bérénice?” I asked. “I need some fresh air.”
I walked. Forging out beyond the lawns and flowerbeds, through the curated wilderness to the beginnings of real countryside beyond. I found a place where the trees melted away into dusty earth at the edge of the park, and a rocky cliff swept down from my feet, the hillside unfurling into the pattern of Provence; orange fields, raked by caterpillar vines, cool lavender, poplar trees and distant scrubby hillsides of olive green. I squatted onto my heels for a moment, and felt the heat rising from the valley below me. From the trees, I heard the first rattle of a lone cicada. It made the hairs of my neck rise up, brought water to my mouth. Summer, I thought. No more avoiding it. I stared into the valley until the light drained my eyes, and I had to turn again into the green shade of the chateau’s grounds, meandering towards the house, sun-dazed.
As I reached the gardens, I could make out the bleary sweep of the drive in the distance. I shaded my eyes, wincing, wanting to be certain.
A coach waited, swaying on its straps as if it had halted only moments before. Footmen bustled about the wheels in flapping livery, and the driver calmed his stamping horses. The door was opened towards me, shielding the figure who descended on its far side. Dressed in dark fabrics. Straight-backed. Tall. My hand clutched the tree by which I stood, and I shrank back. I could see the Countess. She was reaching out a hand in greeting, proffering an embrace.
Still, the door of the carriage was between us. The pair of them, hostess and visitor, would move inside before it was closed, and I would skirt around the house in safety, go to my room, and wait, as the heat rose and the light faded.
But the door snapped to, and the carriage pulled away quickly to be unloaded from the yard. And there they both stood, talking on the driveway, in the afternoon sun.
She was undoing her bonnet. Quick, muscular movements, long forearms, pale against her dark dress. Unbowed. She was frowning. I could tell from the tilt of her head. That single crease would be etched between her dark brows. She indicated the grounds with a commanding wave of her sunhat. Of course, she would want to walk. She would be restless, straining. I could already hear her tread on the gravel path, a quick march, decisive and firm, the Countess following.
She would not have had time. To explain, to ready the field. There would not have been the right moment to mention me. I could see the shape of her shoulders now, her silhouette angled towards me, fair head turning. I panicked. I ran. I darted through the trees, making for a long, tall hedge, which I knew would lead me back to the house unseen. I fled along it like a fugitive, all the while listening anxiously, for the sound of her, for her voice, for the rush of her unseen skirt over the clipped grass.
I could not surprise her, impose upon her unawares, where I had warning, and she none. I could save her that shock, at least. I could protect her from that.
The stairs were cold and dark and I hurried up them, beating against them with my toes. I slammed the door to the guest room behind me, braced myself against it. I felt my heart racing in my chest. I felt the floorboards beneath my feet, solid, real, the door behind my back, against my hands, my shoulders, the grained wood, the varnish. I anchored myself. But my mind was swimming.
She was here. I had seen her. I had seen her shape and known her immediately, just as at the opera house. Not recognised. Known. But so little. Too little. Little enough to shroud in glass, to wrap in a handkerchief and hide in a shoe. Someone’s mother. Someone’s wife. She was so close to where I stood; dangerously close. If I only craned my neck from where I hid myself, if I only leaned forward.
I could see them, in the garden. They were talking, the Countess animated, her visitor statuesque. They walked a grassy path together, trimmed and neat. They seemed uncertain, both of them. I remembered our early conversations, gnomic at first, full of silence and mistrust; then, direct, confrontational, challenging. I wondered if polite Milanese society had taught her superficial charm, but a deep, proud part of me rebelled at the idea. No. No, she was fierce, frank, uncompromising, blunt, honest. Funny.
She was funny. I longed suddenly to see her laugh. The curve of her eye as her cheeks rose.
I watched as one long arm reached for a strand of lavender, twirled the blossom around and around her finger, then let it be, let it spring back unplucked. Suddenly, she turned.
She was staring up at the house, face set, searching. I flinched back. Until I realised that she was not looking at me. Or for me.
I saw her speak, unhurried. Untroubled. Commenting perhaps on the pleasing symmetry of the south elevation or admiring the Countess’s more extravagant improvements, comparing the chateau to one of her husband’s many properties. They walked away together towards the wilderness, a lone manservant following, but they veered with the path, to promenade around the ornamental gardens and the man-made lake beyond.
I sat down slowly on the edge of the bed, my breath ragged, and my eyes slid shut. “Two. Six. Four,” I said to myself, and I felt even as I did so the wave of helplessness, of stupidity and shame, breach over my head and suck me under. I kicked against it, dug my fingers into my palms, surfaced. Two. Six. Four.
I opened my eyes. The room was beige, hollow, and terribly bare now that my own belongings had gone from it. No fire was laid in the grate, no candle in the sconce. I was conscious of my movements, of mussing the sheets on the bed, of the dust that my shoes brought to the floor, the noise of my being. I felt like an imposition, as if I had already been wiped clean from the house to make way.
She probably knew by now. If she did not wish to see me, there was no harm done. I would leave tomorrow just as easily as I would have done today. All I had to do was wait. I found myself wondering idly which was the greater distance; from one side of the opera to the other, or from my window to the sunny lawn below.
I needed distraction. My painting things were all packed. I stood, hesitantly, crept from my own room like a runaway, and tiptoed to the back staircase.
The servant’s door to the reading room was well greased, even after so many years of disuse. Since the Countess and I had finished our work, our merry chatter dissipated, the reading room had taken on an older, more austere quality. Interred in its shrouds, it reeked of haughty disapproval, seeming to brook little by way of disturbance, least of all from visitors, or worse, from staff. I shivered. Strange, that I had spent so many hours here in such tranquility, and now, it was as if I had dipped a toe in a sacred pool, and rippled the surface.
I determined to be quick.
I lifted the covering on the nearest bookcase. The lower shelves contained heavy atlases, vast, illustrated histories of Europe; nothing that I could hope to remove to my room unnoticed. The sheet was heavier than I expected and I had to rest its weight on my shoulder to reveal anything more portable. I found some volumes of classics, but they were all in the original Greek. At last, I came across a collection of Racine.
I was flicking through the first volume of Phèdre when I heard the grand doors at the other end of the salon open. Alarmed, I ducked out from under the cloth, letting it fall back into place, and stepped hurriedly behind the servant’s door.
Above their strong footsteps, the rustling of their skirts, I heard the Countess’s voice. “As a member of the family,” she was saying, “I would value your opinion.”
I waited. Just to hear. Just once more.
“I never met my grandmother.”
Her voice was the same. The same as I remembered. Though I had not heard it in eight years. I felt I would know it anywhere.
“She was not an easy woman,” the Countess went on. “They will have had their reasons. Your father and his brothers.”
“And she will have had hers.” The simple reply was followed by a long, thoughtful pause, as familiar to me as the voice which framed it. “Now they are all dead. There is no one left for her to haunt. It is just a room.”
“Marianne thought it would be suitable,” said the Countess.
Panicking and ashamed, I started up the stairs, until I heard Héloïse reply, “Suitable for your portrait, or for you?” I paused. “Only be certain of your own feelings, before you follow hers,” she said. “Her instincts are more aesthetic than sentimental.”
I slipped. Not badly, but audibly, my foot striking the step below me with a clap. Immediately, the reading room fell silent. I picked myself up and clambered hastily up the stairs with my stolen volume, wishing vehemently that I were dead and long forgotten, or ideally, that I had never lived.
I read. Read furiously. Read for what felt like hours. Read and read over, without understanding, sometimes finding that I had scanned the same line a dozen times without absorbing it, my concentration fighting against the snarling, circling questions in my head.
By the grace of heaven, my hands are not criminals.
Would to the gods, my heart were as innocent as they.
At least I knew something of how she felt, I thought. At least I knew that much.
As if that knowledge were a blessing. As if that knowledge could bring comfort to anything other than my departure; worming back and back into my memories, like the unspooling threads of black rot, creeping and fanning through solid walls, undermining, spoiling, collapsing.
More aesthetic than sentimental.
I would not think of it, I determined. I had misheard, or misunderstood. I had listened at keyholes, and been knocked on the nose. Serves me right. Serves me absolutely right.
I noticed that there were tears in my eyes only when I heard the tap at my door, and felt obliged to wipe them away before I went to answer. “Yes?” I called out as I reached for the handle, my voice cracking with disuse.
And there she was.
She stood in the corridor, motionless. Framed by the architrave like a canvas. As if she had been conjured from memory in my Paris studio, five hundred miles away, sketched out in charcoal and chalk. Héloïse. She gripped her wrist, her bare forearms noticeably strained.
She said, “You are avoiding me.”
I had to close my mouth to swallow. I held onto the doorknob like a shield.
“Yes,” I admitted simply.
She frowned, staring. “Why?”
“I thought it might be better,” I replied, “under the circumstances.” She flinched.
I could see her, wondering what I knew, what I would think to say out loud. Perhaps she was remembering how direct I had been with her all those years ago, how she had found my honesty refreshing. But I was older now. We both were. And I had nothing to prove. I held my tongue.
“Don’t you think it should have been my decision?” she asked at last.
“No,” I said. “I think the decision should have been mutual.” I watched, as she bit her lip, and some ancient bruise in my breast began to ache. “But, here you are.”
I wanted to reach for her hand, to pull her to me, lead her after me; not to hold her, just for us both to be near one another, to speak honestly, to draw new lines, new boundaries between who we were and what we had become.
But I wanted also to close the door in her face, pull the curtains around the bed and hide beneath a blanket. So, I hovered in the doorway, suspended between one impossible impulse and another, waiting.
“Are you leaving?”
Someone had brought my trunk back up, left it outside my room.
“That was my intention,” I said.
“Was?” Her eyes were wide, interrogating. They could be any colour, I remembered with a flash of sickness close to joy. Grey like the roiling sea, blue like an autumn sky, green like a silk dress against yellow sand, driving waves. Flung across my bed in the afternoon sun. I was staring. She said, “My aunt would be delighted if you would join us downstairs for tea.”
“Your aunt.” I felt my eyebrows rise. The impertinent question escaped my lips before I could help it. “And you?”
Her expression did not soften, but something in her defences shifted just a little. As if a gate in a deep passageway slid loose for a moment, and swung free.
“As you said,” she replied, “here I am.”
I felt a smile twitch at my mouth. I could not help it. She was here. “Then, I shall clean myself up and come down,” I said, as calmly as I could manage.
She nodded, satisfied. Her gaze shifted, eyes sharp, to my shoulder, where the sheet from the library had rested. “You are quite dusty,” she noted, “for the drawing room.”
She knew that I had heard. And yet she came to find me. Without defence. Without apology. Offering only her presence. As if she knew that would be enough.
I tripped down the stairs after her, trying my hardest to restrain my haste, my eagerness. I was eager to see her. I was practically running to her; a married woman, whom I had not spoken to in eight years, seen in almost five.
My reaction was unseemly. It was disproportionate.
“Two. Six. Four,” I whispered to myself through locked teeth, rounding the corner at a gallop, betrayed by my own feet. “Two. Six. Four.”
I nearly ran into her.
She was standing directly in my path, facing away, on the half landing, watching the hallway like a Grecian statue of marble and jet.
“Mind yourself,” she said to me without turning.
Had she heard me? I could not tell. Her expression was tense, emotionless. Vigilant. And so, I waited with her. We stood, side by side for a moment, close enough for our skirts to be touching. Then, just as I thought she must be either mischievous or mistaken, she restarted down the stairs at a sedate pace, her feet sounding deliberately forceful on the stone.
At precisely that instant, a manservant patrolled smoothly into view, striding across the entrance with the confidence of a sergeant on watch.
He turned smartly to Héloïse as we passed, and dropped into one of the most attentive, most particular, but somehow minacious bows I had ever seen.
“Madama la Contessa,” he intoned, rumbling piously into the ruffles of his shirt.
She ignored his notice as keenly as she had awaited his arrival, and we swept on without pause. I happened to catch her face in a mirror, as we approached the drawing room. Her complexion was pale; her expression entirely blank.
“You found one another!” Our hostess awaited us, primed in an armchair. The tea things were set out before her in battle formation. No chocolate today, I noted, and Bérénice remained on hand to pour, her apron starched. I felt so suddenly out of place in my work dress, that I barely stopped myself from dropping a curtsey. “Come, sit,” the Countess commanded. “I cannot have this squirming around from both of you.”
I stole a glance at Héloïse, and found that she was staring back at me. She seemed poised to my eye. Annoyed by the fellow in the hallway, perhaps, but collected. Was she nervous? I could no longer see it, if she was.
“Please,” our hostess insisted, “Marianne, do not stand on ceremony for my niece’s sake. You have been at home here too long for such niceties. Honestly, Héloïse, do you have this unsettling effect on everyone, or just on your old friends?”
Héloïse spoke smoothly as she sat. “Certainly on this one,” she said. “When we first met, she could barely string two words together.”
Her light tone took me by surprise. I had to laugh. “This from you?” I asked.
But she continued addressing her aunt as if I were not present. “Taciturn,” she said. “Standoffish.” She glanced at me. “Secretive.”
I guffawed, found myself protesting loudly. “You did not smile at me for a week!” I cried. I addressed the Countess, mounting my own defence. “I have never met anyone so demanding of my company as your niece, yet so determined to be alone.”
“I was in mourning,” Héloïse reminded me, her voice serious, but her eyes playful.
I replied in kind. “You were sulking.”
“But you warmed to one another?” I heard the Countess’s voice, and realised that, for a sweet, silent moment I had been aware only of Héloïse, her nearness, her mood, her reactions to my teasing.
I was already smiling. I could see that I was. I could see it in her face.
“Yes,” I confirmed, my voice full.
She smiled back. “By the end,” she said.
“And how was this miracle achieved?”
Héloïse counted off on her fingers, her voice low, her eyes never leaving mine. “Art. Music. Long walks. Deep conversation. Equality.”
I felt my chest tighten. But managed to count off a roster of my own. “Wine. Cards. Narcotics. Tobacco.”
The Countess laughed.
“Eight years,” she sighed later. The sun sank lazily that day, nestling into the poplars, casting long undulating shadows. “Does it feel that long?”
“Longer,” her niece replied. “And no time at all.”
“And for so brief a reunion.”
“Never enough time,” I said to myself. I had been talked into playing the fortepiano, which I did poorly, my senses and concentration still full of Héloïse. She had grown increasingly pensive as the afternoon wore into evening, and the Countess had taken to bouncing her notice between the two of us, sounding out our depths like a mariner dropping knots.
“A shame. I remember meeting a cousin again after a separation of six years,” she said. “We had been close as children, but then she was married and moved away. I worried about it for weeks beforehand. Would it be as if we had never parted? As if we were starting afresh, as friends?” Héloïse frowned, watching my fingers as I sketched away at some Handel that I half remembered. “I recall thinking, when the meeting came, that it was rather like reading a novel for a second time,” the Countess mused to herself. “Not the same, exactly. Newly familiar. Your imagination allows you to believe that it could all turn out differently, even as your eyes tread all the same paths. There is an inevitability to human contact, I think.”
“There is nothing inevitable,” Héloïse said firmly. “One chooses.”
Her aunt pursed her lips. “In terms of action, perhaps, yes. One can make this or that choice. But not in terms of feeling. Why, when you saw Marianne at that concert,” she went on blithely, “you chose not to go to her, this is true.”
“Concert?” Héloïse’s eyes were suddenly alert, her head raised straight as a stag.
Her aunt’s expression by comparison was serene. “I do beg your pardon,” she said. “Of course, it was Marianne who saw you at a concert, was it not?”
Héloïse’s head spun in my direction, her eyes darkly accusing. “Four years ago,” I confessed. “It was a programme of Vivaldi. I forget where.”
The Countess went on. “As I was saying, she chose not to go to speak to you then, just as you chose not to go to her at that exhibition. You were telling me.”
I felt my eyebrows rise, my fingers pause on the keys, and Héloïse’s accusatory look became defiant, and somehow culpable. “Turin,” she said, her stare never releasing mine. “You seemed busy.”
“You seemed upset.”
I picked out the melody from Giulio Cesare on the keyboard that I had been puzzling over; a long melismatic phrase, heard years back and turned over in my heart since then. It had been so sweet and undulating and high in the singer’s voice, that it had seemed to me quite literally unsustainable, its mere existence a miracle of muscle and of art; a painting on the air.
Turin. The exhibition had been in my father’s name. She must have known.
“In any case,” the Countess interrupted, “you chose your actions, both of you, but your feelings? This is inevitable. The constant and unchanging chemistry of two disparate elements.”
Héloïse was examining the preserved rose in its glass prison, her wide hand resting lightly on the dome. I saw the muscle of her thumb flex.
“I did not realise you had an interest in natural philosophy, aunt,” Héloïse commented.
“I? No, truly, the natural philosophy was all your uncle. You are leaning on one of his experiments.” Héloïse glanced down, lifted her palm suddenly as if stung by the trapped thorns. “Preservation in a vacuum. Of course, by its nature,” her aunt observed drily, “the experiment is ongoing.”
“The elements may be constant,” Héloïse said, “but the circumstance of their meeting must surely alter the outcome. There must be variables.”
“I believe so,” the Countess replied. “Concentration. Pressure. Temperature. The presence of a catalyst. Usually, though, these affect only the speed of the reaction. Whether it races forward, or can be held off.”
“Held off for how long?”
Héloïse turned to me. She seemed to consider for a prolonged moment, before asking, “What is that?”
I stopped my fingers, guiltily hid them in the lap of my dress. “An aria I heard once,” I replied. And then, because she seemed to be waiting for more, “It is from…”
“Don’t,” she interrupted, with a shake of her head. She went to sit back down on the low sofa. “It is beautiful. But don’t.” She was wearing that ghost of a smile. “Let us experiment.”
It was an offering. A hand reaching into memory. A compromise. We cannot be what we were. We must redraw the lines. Draw them with me.
“Test the variables?” I asked. She nodded. “Then don’t read to me,” I said.
“Don’t watch me swim.”
“Don’t cook for me.”
“Don’t paint me.”
I was about to say “Don’t pose for me,” but the words caught somewhere in my chest.
You, soft with sleep, rolling onto your back, eyes flint focussed, hands drawn up in gentle assent, seeing, permitting, offering.
“My things are all packed, anyway,” I said, my voice thick.
The Countess cleared her throat a little too loudly, one pale eyebrow raised. “Ready to go,” she said.
“I have often wondered,” she said later over dinner, “how such a friendship would rekindle after so many years. I am almost sorry that I missed the reunion. Tell me,” she said, her manner loose, “was it terribly mundane? Was it bourgeois? Did you shake hands and enquire after one another’s families?”
“Naturally,” I replied. Héloïse looked up in amused confusion. “We shook hands,” I went on. “Curtseyed. Doffed caps. Then we commented at length upon the weather.”
She watched my performance, with those steely intelligent eyes. “And one another’s gowns,” she added, playing along.
“And figures,” I quipped, enjoying the novelty. “And the roads from Milan.”
“Then we made insincere arrangements to meet for coffee,” she said, “an engagement that both parties intend to break.”
“Unless it is to speak much too publicly about our children.”
Even as her aunt laughed, Héloïse’s expression stumbled for a moment. She asked, “You have children?” It was too quiet for anyone but me to hear. I shook my head, but her expression was changed, troubled. She played with the dregs in her glass, staring into candlelight.
“We were never those people,” I said. “Were we?”
Héloïse shook her head, her face still. “We were never even introduced,” she replied. The mood had fallen.
I drained my wine. “Shocking,” I said, as lightly as I could. “Perhaps your aunt would do the honours now, as a mutual acquaintance?”
“Do not be absurd,” she whispered, her eyes glittering. She was annoyed.
“I was joking. You used to enjoy that,” I said. “Or must that change too? For your experiment?”
The Countess broke in. “You clever pair of idiots,” she scoffed. “You have so little time, the two of you. You have no notion how little! Why the intellectual exercise? Why not simply enjoy one another?”
There was an awkward silence around the table. Héloïse glared at nothing, and I could feel heat surging to my cheeks.
Because I loved you. Because I smiled at you across a bonfire, across a song, and felt suddenly the deep certainty of what we were together, of what you wanted, of what we were bound to do and become, and of how it would end. And a heavier certainty; that knowing the outcome would alter nothing.
Because I do not know whether I still love you. Whether what I feel around you now is new minted, or an echo, reflected back into my chest, my belly, my hands from distant rocky caves, from across an abyss of miles and years, along branching tunnels of stone. An affection. A sentimental memory.
Of something else we never actually said.
“To make it easier to say goodbye.”
It was Héloïse who had spoken, but she had voiced my mind so accurately that I found I clutched at my skirts suddenly under the table.
The Countess held her glass of wine close to her face. She narrowed her eyes.
“Goodbyes should not be easy,” she said. “They must not be easy. One may say ‘farewell’ merrily enough. ‘See you soon,’ one might even say with joy. After all, it is a promise. It is full of hope, no? But ‘goodbye’? To bid goodbye, is to say, ‘I must put you into God’s hands, since I can no longer hold you in mine.’ A goodbye is a capitulation to forces bigger, stronger than ourselves, than our wills, our desires. It is a surrender, of someone dear, to the questionable mercies of the world. One quite literally gives them up.” She sipped at her wine. “Goodbyes are shattering, and devastating, and holy. And life is full of them. Do not try to make them easy. Far better to make them worthwhile.” She turned to me. “You still intend to leave us in the morning?”
I could hardly reply. “I fear that I should,” I said quietly. “If possible.”
“You do well,” the countess replied drily, “to be afraid.”
She rang for Bérénice. As mistress and servant conversed, I stole a glance at Héloïse, and a cold dread rose within me. The day had stalked away, and I had spent it being so careful of her.
“Please,” I said, and saw her closed eyes tighten.
At last she said softly, “You were right.”
“What?” I mouthed.
“The decision should have been mutual,” she murmured. “I am sorry.” Her brow furrowed and her head dropped and I was reminded of her sitting on the beach suddenly, my book in her lap. Her blonde hair blowing.
I murmured back, “Only tell me what you want.”
“I hardly know.”
And then, it was too late. “It seems that tomorrow we would be at liberty to take you as far as Aubagne,” the Countess reported. She looked at me expectantly, and I found I was not equal to it. The thought, finally, of sitting in a carriage, being dragged farther and farther away, watching her dwindle: it was insupportable. I looked to Héloïse, but she was staring into her plate, her brow clenched, her thumb held at her mouth. “Well?” her aunt enquired. My eyes snapped back up.
“Madame la comtesse,” I began, but she interrupted me.
“You will have to stop that, you know,” she said. “Very confusing. Too many countesses by half.”
At that, Héloïse’s head turned. I went on, pretending not to have noticed.
I said, “Might I have tonight to consider?” There was a taught silence, an acknowledgement that some threshold had finally, after persistent invitation and much resilience, been crossed. “I realise I will need a better travel plan, if I am to leave, and have given the matter next to no thought.”
I had expected the Countess to be triumphant. She had read me well. She had nagged and bullied and won. But it was not pride I saw in her face in that moment. It was relief. “But of course,” she said. I dared not look at Héloïse. There was such a pit of stillness from her end of the table that I simply did not dare. “By all means, take one of your midnight wanders in the garden, Marianne. Think it over. You might consider joining her, Héloïse,” the Countess said to her niece. “Good for the digestion. Good for the heart.”
Héloïse’s voice was low when she finally spoke. Monotone.
“I am tired.”
What was I doing?
I strode in the moonlight, my hands in my pockets, swinging my feet over the crisping grass like a sulking schoolboy. What on earth was I doing?
The wilderness had proved too dark this late, but I longed for the gloom of the dense trees. I skirted the tall hedges, dipping from shadow to shadow, needing to be invisible, to shrink into myself, become nothing but my thoughts and my honesty.
I had promised. Memory was the gift we had exchanged. Memory should have been enough. We had done our chasing after one another. We had done our clutching and gasping and holding and our arguing and crying over the impossible. We had desired, and despaired, and triumphed over that despair with the only thing we had. We had knitted ourselves into one another’s memories, perfect and complete and untouchable, pulling back from the canvas to see clearly what we had achieved together. What we had created.
What we had finished.
The cicadas were still singing, even this far into the evening. The darkness did not seem to discourage them. It was warm, and they were only young in the world. Perhaps they did not know the difference. Day, night, what of it? Here we are, alive and heated, they seemed to say, after so long spent asleep. Should we not then sing to one another? Is not now, right now, the perfect time?
I walked back towards the house. I could see the usual lights from Eugénie’s apartments, spilling out like a festival through her ever-fastened glass. And in the next chamber, rooms I had not yet seen occupied, there too I saw a dim glow. A single candle, perhaps beside a distant bed, set back from view. But this window was thrown wide, shutter out, sash up, as if the occupant were stifling. I waited, in my shadow, and presently saw a movement away from the casement, then a figure approaching, and finally a silhouette appeared, golden hair lit from behind. It halted.
She was looking out.
I knew what she was seeing. I could see the same from my room above: the light from her aunt’s chambers, assaulting the slumbering garden below with its irresistible, vibrant persistence. I waited for her to retreat into darkness and privacy. But she did not. And I realised that she would not. Because I knew why she waited.
Taking a deep breath, I stepped out, my hands in my pockets, my face raised. I looked for where I knew the dim figure to be, even as the light dazzled me and hid her from my eyes. I stepped even further, so there could be no mistaking, and let myself be seen. The moments passed, still and tense. The breath came into my body haltingly, as if my lungs were newly opened to the air. I began counting against my heartbeat. A minute. Then two. An eternity, suspended in a space of seconds.
Finally, the halo of gold shifted. The soft light caught the turning shape of a nose, a cheekbone, an ear, the coiled chignon, and she was gone.
I breathed, and dropped my eyes. Even after all this time, I thought.
I paused to clear my mind, to taste the air again, and became gradually aware of movement behind me, of the deliberate crunch of steps in the gravel. I returned to my hiding place, drawing my dark skirts about me, and shortly I was surprised to see that same manservant as before, striding along the path like the lord of the manor. As he passed under Héloïse’s window I saw him stop, turn to face the garden smartly, and scan the darkness. I had been fairly confident of my concealment, but as his attention swept over me, his gaze paused, and another perfectly polite, utterly unnerving smile split his handsome face. He bowed slightly. “Buonasera, signora,” he called out, his teeth flashing alarmingly white.
I had not wanted to reply. But his confidence daunted me, and my body responded automatically, as one might raise a hand to the sting of a slap. I began walking away to the servant’s entrance, trying not to betray how shaken I was. I could feel his eyes on my neck all the way, and shivered violently as I turned the corner.
I had readied myself for sleep, when the knock at the door came.
My mouth was dry. My every nerve buzzing. My vision was blown wide, the hairs on my neck and arms, pulling upward, outward, reaching. I stumbled to the doorway.
But it was only Bérénice. She stood in the corridor, slippered on the boards, dishevelled by sleep. She yawned and handed me a book.
“Lady Héloïse borrowed it,” she explained. “She sends her apologies. She says she trusts you understand.”
I took the volume, bemused. It was the first act of Phèdre. Confounded, I bid the messenger a hesitant goodnight and closed the door.
She must have come up to my room in the dark. Stood here, in my chamber. Taken the book from the bed.
She sent an apology.
She trusted that I understood.
A sudden feeling of wonder swept through me. I squatted close to the fireplace, leaning my shoulder on the stone surround, and flipped through the thick pages, hoping, disbelieving. I turned to page twenty-eight.
And saw that a single word in the text had been underlined, the ink shining, black, new.
Let us remain.
And the soaring phrase of the song I had played her earlier, the song whose name she did not want to know, came back into my heart like a flood of honey.
Cara speme, it said, questo core tu cominci a lusingar.
You begin to seduce my heart, dearest hope.
Chapter 3: Two. Six. Four.
She appeared the next morning, when her aunt and I were already sitting at breakfast. She was wearing a plain, dark dress. Her hair was up simply, her expression alert, neck taut.
“Héloïse,” the Countess greeted her gaily, “such a sombre dress for the day’s good news! Marianne has decided to grace us with her company for a few days more.” Her face did not alter a whit, except to freeze in place, her lips pursed forward. “Is not that splendid?” Her eyes met mine. There was no surprise in them. She only waited, for my denial, perhaps. For qualification. When neither came, she reached for the cup set before her, drained the coffee she had been poured, and rose again to her feet.
“I am ready for a walk, in that case,” she said. She strode out of the breakfast room, leaving her aunt somewhat perplexed, but no less delighted.
I made sure to finish eating in my own time. “She will wait,” I said, more confidently than I felt. I could hardly do anything else. Had I hurried after her in that moment, I would probably have fallen over my own feet.
I found her in the ornamental gardens. She was crouched beside a flower bed, intent as a pointer. As I neared her, I could see that she was examining a bumble bee where it had landed on a singularly byzantine bloom, pushing itself through the folds and flourishes, to emerge baptised in yellow pollen. Her eyes were wide, child-like, and I felt my heart surge recklessly, leaping towards her like a doe. Cautious, I held back, my sensibilities still smarting from the day before. I watched. She dipped her fingers carefully into the flower, so carefully that it barely wobbled on the stem, and gingerly drew them out, rubbing the dust between the pads of her fingers and thumb. I could see the curls of hair at her temples sticking to her skin in the heat, darkened by sweat in the bright sunshine.
She turned to face me, still crouched, her forearms resting on her knees, her elbows wide. The sun was behind me. She was having to squint into it. I raised my hand above my head until its long shadow shielded her eyes. And when they opened, they were clear, blue-green against the grass. We looked at one another for a while.
At last, she said, “That is the first time you have said my name since I arrived.”
“To you, perhaps,” I replied. The fingers of my shadow were over her brow, in her hair. “You have not yet said mine.”
“Not to you.”
She stood up, and the shadow of my hand fell over her throat, her chest, her waist, until our gazes were level, and there was nothing between us but the sun and the sound of birds, and the distant hum of bees.
And the eerie echo of years.
“Where shall we go?” she asked.
I led the way. I knew the many paths of the wilderness by this time, so I forged ahead of her, dictating the direction, feeling always the pull of her presence behind me, keeping me close. My ears latched to the sound of her breath as it grew stronger, more pronounced, to the drag of her skirts over the uneven ground as we clambered. We were nearing the final ascent to one of my favourite views over the valley when, at last, I found I could no longer remain silent. I stopped. I turned round. She nearly barrelled into me, drawing up like a horse shying at a jump. It was a moment before I could speak.
“More aesthetic than sentimental?” I asked.
Her eyes held, but her chin dropped a fraction. She steadied herself on the uneven ground. “I meant it as a compliment,” she replied.
“Of course you did,” I retorted. “You were describing yourself.”
That struck home. She blinked suddenly, put her hands to her waist, and breathed as if winded for a moment. Then, she scowled at me, from under those dark brows. “Two, six, four?” she said.
I found I could not reply. My vision swam. The hem of my dress was stained orange by the dirt. I would have to clean it. She repeated herself. “Two, six, four!”
I raised my eyes to her, as steadily as I could. “Two weeks. Six days. Four times,” I answered. Although of course, it was no answer at all, and her expression demanded more. “I knew you for two weeks,” I said. “Loved you for six days. Slept with you four times.” My eyes were prickling in the bright sunlight and the dry air. I smiled weakly. “That was all.”
She nodded. Wiped at her mouth with her hand, glared up at me. Defiant. Beautiful. She asked me, “Did yours help?”
I laughed, and realised that I was crying, too late to be able to disguise it. “Not at all,” I admitted.
“No,” she sighed. “No. Neither did mine.” She rubbed roughly at her eyes, before looking back at me, her smile wide, and genuine, and desperately sad. “Marianne,” she said.
I held out my hand to her, to help her up the last of the slope. Her fingers clasped around my wrist, strong and familiar, and she balanced her weight against me. We crested the hill together.
We sat in silence for a long time. There was too much to say; no good way of beginning. So we enjoyed the quiet, and the sunshine, the heat rising. After a while, I became aware that she was looking at something in the distance and that a darkness had entered her expression. I followed her eyes, and saw, at the far sweeping edge of the tamed parkland, the tiny figure of a man in a frock coat. He was standing easy, staring back in our direction. I could see his ponytail blowing in a light breeze.
“What on earth is he watching for?” I wondered aloud.
Her voice was so pragmatic that it shocked me. I looked at her to see if she was joking, searching her narrowed eyes for any hint of jest. But there was none. “To what end?” I asked.
“To even the score,” she said. “He is my husband’s man.”
I looked back at the figure, dark, silent, solid as a statue. I pictured him patrolling the park, the gardens, the snaking corridors at night. I shivered, even with the midday heat approaching. “I imagined he might have been contrite,” I muttered angrily. “Your husband.”
She laughed softly. “That only goes to show that you have never met him,” she said. “He would like nothing better than to find that I had fled to the arms of a lover. And so, his man watches.”
A fierce pride filled me suddenly. That once, for a short time, when the choice had been hers, she had chosen me. “And he sees nothing,” I said.
Her reply was firm. “Because there is nothing to see.”
There. I ran my hand through the grass, marvelling at its sting, grating against the webs of my fingers like saw blades. I had wanted new lines drawn. And here they were. The bruise in my chest throbbed anew as I played with one rough stem for a moment, nursing it, exploring the feeling.
She frowned, watching me. When she spoke, her tone had softened. “He is contrite. In his way. But he has trouble with his pride, with his shame,” she said. “He hates his own hypocrisy, and so sees it everywhere. He claimed for a time that Theresa was not his child.”
Theresa. Yes. She would be intelligent, funny, rebellious, sharp. Wide-eyed and curious. Like her mother. So alike as to allow for suspicion. “Why?” I asked.
“He has sons,” she explained. “He prefers them. He would have liked a legitimate heir.” Her voice grew distant. “But I cannot provide one now.”
Cold gripped me by the scalp. “You were ill with Theresa?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “With the child that followed.”
She turned her head away from me, and I could do nothing, nothing but hold her in my eyes.
Her jaw was softer than I remembered, its lines less distinct, the creases from her nose to the corner of her mouth a little more pronounced. Her throat was softer too, where it bobbed as she swallowed. But her mouth was just the same, and the thick, dark sweep of her lashes. The same softness of hair curled in front of her ear. I knew how it would smell, I realised. I knew the feel of it on my nose, on my mouth. I longed to be nearer to her then, to make sure of her, to feel that she was real and solid and warm and living. There were tears on the high angle of her cheek. They caught the light. “He came too soon,” she whispered. “He was too little.” I placed my hand between us, on the hem of her dress, so that it pulled a little tighter over her knee, and waited. At last, the breath returned to her, even and steady. She turned her head, composed. “It brought me closer to my mother,” she said eventually. “I was grateful for that. Before the end.”
“I am so sorry,” I managed. “I only just heard from your aunt that you had lost her.”
Her eyes found mine. “I lost her long before you and I ever met,” she said simply, her voice calm. “I was glad to have her back again.”
I found that my fingers were playing with the pattern at the hem of her dress. The embroidery was beautiful, but the work had been almost entirely hidden, apparently by design; dark thread against dark cloth. Subtle mourning. It needed to be touched to be appreciated. I ran my thumb over and over, finding stitch after delicate stitch, admiring with my fingers. I heard her laugh gently through her nose. We were close enough that I felt the warmth of her sudden breath on my face and I grinned in spite of myself.
“What?” I asked innocently.
She was quiet for a moment. Then, “You always had such restless hands,” she said.
I raised my head, giddy suddenly, wary of my own instinct which was to seek her out. I found I had to turn away. Because there was nothing to see.
I glowered into the distance, towards our indefatigable witness, a new irritation blossoming darkly in the pit of my stomach. “He looks bored,” I said. I stood up, my legs bitterly complaining. How slow and tired I had grown in eight short years. “Let us give him some exercise.”
We ducked back into the tree line together, and wove between the pines, balancing our hands from trunk to slender trunk as we descended the hill in comfortable silence. The heat had come upon the park so quickly, I longed to remove my jacket, to walk in my corset and chemise. There would be dark stains under my arms by this time. I could feel my sweat beading about the nape of my neck, pasting down my hair, creeping between my shoulder blades.
“You have not asked me,” she said suddenly, her voice close.
“Whether she is his child.”
I stopped, leaning on a tree, and faced her. Her jacket was already slung over one shoulder, the white sleeves of her chemise sticking sheer to the skin beneath, her long arms, lean and capable. She was breathing hard. I could have stood there, beheld her like that, for hours. I replied. “Because there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that she is.”
“Such certainty,” she replied softly. “I slept with you.”
I pushed myself away from the tree trunk with a laugh. “Well,” I answered, grinning, “I do not think that she is mine.”
If I could have memorised, in the blinking of an eye, the enigmatic expression that flashed across her face in the next instant, I would have painted that, and that exclusively, for the rest of my life. But it was fled and gone, ducking back into the deep, secret places from which it had emerged, in the very split-second of my seeing. And having no leave to follow it down, I led us back, navigating the steep and rocky paths.
“A warm morning,” the Countess commented. “You have caught the sun, both of you.”
The late Count’s study was cool and quiet, with a view over the lake. I was writing a letter at the window seat and, I confess, making a meal of it. Héloïse was in my eye-line, reading a dense tome of natural philosophy, her uncle’s I supposed, and she too seemed to be making slow progress. Every time I raised my eyes from the paper, I found that she was looking at me, her expression alert and searching.
“Is your letter bound for Aix?” the Countess asked me. I said that it was, that I liked to detail my plans for my clients before arrival, so that they would have time to consider their wishes without my being there. “Bring it to me when you are finished, if you like,” she said, “and I will add my recommendation. In these parts, I am afraid it pays to have titled friends. Héloïse, do you have anything to send?”
“No,” her niece said distractedly. “How long would it take a letter to reach Milan, do you think?”
Her aunt rolled her eyes. “An age. It all has to go through Toulon. Why not wait to write,” she suggested, “until you have seen something of the country? You could take a trip to the coast. Both of you.”
Héloïse was silent for a moment. “Theresa has never seen the sea,” she said at last.
We had caught the sun. There was a bronze blush high on her cheek which I had never seen before. It suited her. I was halfway through the sketch before I even realised I was drawing. She noticed before I did. She snapped her book shut, rising to her feet immediately.
“Aunt,” she said, “you have not showed me your portrait,” and marched out without waiting for a reply.
The Countess, after throwing a questioning glance in my direction, hurried after her and I continued my letter in silence, listening to their distant, staccato conversation as it threaded through the halls.
It was a moment before I realised that the ensuing peace was not entirely my own. I looked up from my seat, to see the manservant, looming broadside in the study doorway. I started with shock. Hoping that natural surprise would mask my unease, I gave him a terse nod, careful of my ink.
“Are you looking for your mistress?” I asked. “She is in the drawing room at present.”
“Grazie,” he replied, making no attempt at French, although he clearly understood. “So dov’è.” I know where she is. He drifted across the threshold, unctuous and domineering. “Com’è andata la passeggiata?” he asked. How was your walk?
“Bene, grazie,” I replied, not willing to be bullied in a language I knew well. “E la sua? La vista è bellissima, no?” Isn’t the view beautiful?
“Affascinante,” he agreed. Fascinating. He strolled over to the desk, as I folded up the letter. “Per la posta?” he asked, holding out a hand, as if to take it from me to the mail directly.
“Per la Contessa, prima,” I sighed, feigning annoyance that I could not take advantage of his kind offer, tucking the note into my pocket. “Ma grazie, signore.”
He leaned over the paper on my writing tablet, peering at the quick sketch I had inked onto the sheet now uncovered. He nodded his appreciation. “Una stretta rassomiglianza,” he said admiringly. A striking resemblance.
“È la mia professione,” I replied.
“Sì. Certo.” And he leered at me, close-mouthed and mirthless. “E questa è la mia.”
He bowed deeply once again and left.
And this is my profession. His words rattled within my stomach, hollow as a crypt. A good minute had passed before I was calm enough to leave my seat.
The Countess’s portrait held court. It was resting on an easel in the middle of the drawing room, so pivotal a member of the company that, as I joined them, I wondered that she had not been served with tea.
Héloïse sat before the canvas, bolt upright, concentrated as a spear. But on seeing her, my anxious gut dropped yet further. She was completely absorbed, fixated. Scowling.
The Countess reclined behind her, thoroughly amused. She shrugged over her niece’s gravity as I drew near. “We await her approval, Marianne,” she said.
I managed to hide my apprehension with a laugh. “Her approval? Or her demand for satisfaction?”
“Pistols at dawn.”
“I like it very well,” Héloïse interrupted, her voice quiet. Her eyes did not break from the portrait for a moment. “It is well observed,” she said carefully. “Perceptive.”
I drew up a chair, splayed back in it, and looked again at my work. A day or so had passed since I had considered it properly. My own paintings always managed to take me by surprise. They were like children, suddenly grown an inch or two while my back was turned. And like children, I found them exhausting.
I was pleased with this one. I had wanted to capture the qualities that the Countess seemed to value most in herself; her vitality, her intelligence. I thought I had done so. But I wearied of agonising over her deeper merit. I wanted her to go and live and be enjoyed. She did not need my fussing. For a different sitter, I would perhaps have worried that I had made her look too much her age, or that I should have made her appear more fashionable. Neither of those would matter to Héloïse.
“You think it is dishonest?” I asked her. “Indulgent?”
She shook her head. “Not at all.”
“What troubles you then?” I murmured.
“Nothing.” She stood abruptly. “Why should it trouble me?” She turned from the portrait, inhaled. “The work is candid, transparent, vital,” she said, “and beautifully executed.” She faced me. “It is as fine a portrait from you,” she said, “as I have ever seen.”
“Thank you,” I replied cautiously. “I value your approval.”
“Yet should you really?” asked the Countess, watching us with curiosity. “In art, as in life, one must beware the compliments of friends, no?”
“Your niece is my harshest critic,” I said. “Perhaps you did not know; she made me restart her portrait from scratch, the original so displeased her.”
As her aunt laughed, Héloïse sat down a little way away from us. Her blue eyes shot up at me, with a sudden emptiness that was surprising, and unpleasant. “I did not make you,” she said.
“No,” I allowed. “But it was what you wanted, was it not?”
There was defiance in her expression, and some embarrassment. Confusion, too, although I could not divine its source, was not at liberty to ask. She said, so softly that she might not have meant for me to hear, “What we both wanted.”
“And to think, the worst you were threatened with here was the rose!” her aunt went on. She caressed the glass case with a sentimental hand, as one might pat an idiot spaniel. “Awful, blousy thing.”
“I will never understand your true feelings for that flower,” I teased.
“We have known each other a very long time,” she replied, "this rose and I. And as with all lengthy entanglements, our relationship is rich and complicated. I am sure you understand.”
“None of my entanglements have been nearly so lengthy,” I confessed.
“Really?” The Countess observed me with a new interest. “And yet you are beautiful. And talented. And have an income. My dear Marianne, you can scarcely have been applying yourself. Are you lackadaisical when it comes to matters of the heart?” She enjoyed my embarrassment. “Or perhaps, it is the opposite. Perhaps you are an incorrigible rake, and a scoundrel?”
I did not need to look in Héloïse’s direction to know that she was listening. “Neither, I assure you,” I said. “My work obliges me to travel. That is all.”
“Ah, yes.” The Countess sat back, her fingers woven over her stomacher, her eyes narrowed. “It would be a rare husband indeed, willing to keep house for an absent wife.”
“I would never ask that,” I said emphatically. “If I could not find someone willing to be my equal, my partner, I would prefer nobody at all.”
“There: we have solved it.” The Countess clapped her hands together. “Neither wallflower, nor libertine. But an idealist. And so, of course,” she laughed, “you are alone.”
“You are free,” Héloïse murmured. I understood, without her having to inflect in the slightest, that it was a question.
“Yes,” I replied. “I am.”
“Where is it from, Eugénie?” I asked over luncheon. “The rose?”
“The gardens in my father’s estate,” she replied. “Near Strasbourg. Picked in the year of my marriage. When it became clear that our union would take me far from home, I told your uncle, Héloïse, that the roses would be the thing I would miss the most. They do not grow well this far south, you know. The soil is too dry.”
Her niece managed a curt nod. She had been pushing her food around her plate as she listened, her face impenetrable as a shield.
“So, my husband preserved one for me. Sweet of him,” she said, needle sharp, her head on one side. “But I will never understand why people mark a wedding with the gift of something unchanging. It is a curse on a marriage: ‘This way, and only like this, forever and ever. Amen.’ As if one can inspire constancy through example, exhort the tide to abandon its rise and fall.” She shook her head. “This is not our way. People change. This is not a tragedy. This is proof that we are still alive. And that our love, too, is a living thing.” She shrugged. “But there: he was young, I suppose. And oddly conventional. When he gave me this rose, I knew that I was marrying a generous man. An intelligent man. A creative man. A man who cared for me. But a man who I knew, even then, would never understand me.”
“How did you know?” I asked.
She leaned back, laughter on her face, but such sadness behind her eyes. “Well, the thing I loved about the roses,” she said, “was the smell.”
Héloïse marched out into the gardens after lunch like a pale comet. She wanted to go to the lake, she said. She wanted some air. She wanted me to go with her. But she charged away the moment we were out of doors, as if company were the last thing she desired. I trailed after her, at my own pace, admiring the day, by no means eager to work up another sweat, or to spoil my lunch.
When I was a fair distance from the house, I could see her, alone by the water’s edge, her white sleeves akimbo and her head dropped. She looked out of breath, as if her laces were too tight.
“You were very quiet,” I called to her.
Her head snapped in my direction, and she marched off again around the lakeside.
“Does she never stop talking?” she barked back at me.
The question bounced off the stonework of the house. I found myself cringing, embarrassed for her. I had never seen her like this; demonstrative and petty. I increased my pace to match her furious progress. “You are not angry with your aunt,” I said, as I neared her.
“Eugénie, you mean,” she called over her shoulder, her tone acid.
I caught up to her. “You are not angry with your aunt,” I reiterated. “You have no reason. This is beneath you.” I overtook her, stood in her way, confronted her. “You are jealous.”
She laughed incredulously. “You think so?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Of her portrait, to begin with.”
Her expression hardened. “You flatter yourself.”
“So you don’t like it?” She stayed silent, chewing at the inside of her mouth. She would not lie, simply to hurt me, I knew. Stubborn. Annoyed. Honourable. “Tell me its flaws, then,” I dared her. “We both know you are capable.”
“In Milan,” she said dangerously, “you would never see such a painting. The style would seem presumptuous. It is too knowing.” She shouldered past me. “Too fond.”
“I am fond of your aunt.” I spun with her, walked by her side, spoke under my breath. “I am. Not in the way I was fond of you. But I am not ashamed that my affection shows in my work.” We rounded the corner, into the cover of a little grove of trees, a sloping lawn down to the lakeside, away from the house and its watching windows. She stepped away from me then, her hand fretting at her mouth. “You showed me how to paint that intimacy,” I said. “You taught me. Surely you did not want me to stop growing?” I asked. “I never wanted that for you. How can you be jealous, then, if after eight years maybe, just maybe, her portrait is a little bit better than yours?”
“I am jealous because her portrait is hers,” she exclaimed. “Entirely hers.” Her hands were at her waist, her eyes red-rimmed. “And there is nothing in this world that is mine, Marianne, nothing I have that cannot be taken away from me; nothing I want that cannot be used against me. And I am tired. I had no notion. No notion at all of just how tired I have become.”
You, transforming your sadness, your fear into anger. Your anguish into rage. ‘Voilà qui est triste,’ spoken through clenched teeth and a grief beyond weeping. Your hair plastered down with dried salt, your body newly baptised in rough waters, coldly ripping apart the fruits of my betrayal. You were incandescent, justified. Terrified.
I was losing you in every way that I could.
“I understand,” I said.
“You cannot understand.” Her voice was hoarse, the fury drained into an exhaustion that was almost tender. “Any more than she can. With her house and her fortune and her patronising memories of a man who cared for her, however imperfectly. There is no way that either of you could possibly understand.” She swept a sad glance in my direction. “And you cannot look at me that way,” she said. “As you were in the study. You must not.”
I paused, uncertain. “How was I looking at you?” I asked.
“You know very well,” she replied. “When you were drawing me. And it must stop, Marianne.”
How was I looking at her? Sitting in the sun, the letter on my lap, and her face, her lovely face, endlessly surprising, achingly familiar, not hundreds of miles distant and faded by years, but here; right here, attainable with a tilt of my head, the smallest movement of my eyes. The colour high in her cheeks where the summer had pressed down, the contrast in her hair, where the sun had bleached it almost white, where her sweat had dyed it dark as mine. How had I looked at her in that moment? How had I felt?
That I had to draw her. That my hands did not know what else to do. Or how to draw without looking. How to look without feeling. That there is happiness in acting on a feeling that comes spontaneously and naturally.
Happiness. I had looked at her with a deep, profound happiness.
And it must stop.
I sat down.
I stared out over the still surface of the lake. The water was very clear, very cool. I could feel the air moving over it in the coil of my ears. I wanted to put my feet in it, dabble my toes like a child, shock the surface. But my head was empty. After a long moment of silence, she was beside me, her feet tucked under her skirts, scanning the prospect of the orderly gardens towards the folly. She was waiting for me. Neat, contained, controlled. After all that had passed between us, I had forgotten her capacity for self-control. I could not hope to match it. But I could at least try. I sat up. I breathed deeply and listened to the birds, to the insects.
“He speaks French, doesn’t he?” I asked.
She turned her head, requiring no explanation, a sly smirk pulling at her lips. Our thoughts kept pace.
“Perfectly,” she muttered. “But he won’t. It is a mark of loyalty.” I found myself hunting my peripheral vision for his shape. It struck me that he was only seen when he wanted to be. Or was at least very skilled at giving that impression. “My husband told his staff to speak no French to me at all when I first arrived,” she murmured, “so that I would learn Italian the quicker. He has obeyed that instruction doggedly for eight years.”
“But,” I said, blinking in confusion, “you speak Italian.”
“I do,” she sighed and caught my eye. “My husband never bothered to check.” Her look was mischievous, and bright, and conspiratorial, and funny. Her eyes had curved into two blue bows, crinkled at the edges. She was holding back from laughing through her nose, tugging at me like a magnet.
I shifted, just an inch away from her, felt the pull, the old bruise. She noticed. Something of the abandon in her expression faded, but none of the warmth. We straightened together, and gazed out over the lake.
“It will be difficult for me,” I said, “but I will try.”
A wood pigeon began cooing in the trees overhead, the thread of its song undulating like a wave, like a sigh. I listened, my eyes closed, until my breath was synchronised to its gentle swell, and the buzz of the cicadas overwhelmed everything.
“Only, it is so good to see you.”
Was it possible that I heard her smile? The drag and release of her lips over her teeth? The softest opening of the corners of her mouth? The sudden press of air, and the held calm.
“It is good to see you too.”
Chapter 4: Dearest Hope
We walked around the lake. Where the waters met the even lawns and terraces of the park, we veered wordlessly into the wilderness, obeying an unspoken pact to eschew the intricate plantings, and instead to weave amid the dust and boulders, pursue the ragged column of umbrella pines.
“What did you think of Turin?” I asked.
I turned to glare at her, and saw her knowing grin, tipped at me from under dark brows. “Don’t tease,” I said.
“There was a lot that I liked,” she said. “And some pieces which I found contrived. I felt you were trying to be something that you aren’t.” There was a pause, before she corrected herself. “Or that I did not remember you being.”
I laughed, self-conscious. “The Minotaur?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “It was coarse,” she added after a moment’s thought. “Cynical. Violent. Not like you.”
“It was the result of an argument,” I confessed, “with my father. We never argue. I didn’t know what to do with the feeling. So, I painted it. I don’t very much like it either.”
“What did you mean by it?”
I hesitated. “A model I worked with,” I said. "He began talking about me around Paris, about the posing that he did for me, in a manner that made it clear who I was. Abundantly clear…”
Héloïse prompted, “And clear who your father was?”
I paused again. “I don’t think my father minded so very much about that,” I said. “Things might have been awkward for a while, but… No, Papa was more concerned about my fiancé.”
Héloïse stopped. “You were engaged?”
I nodded, suddenly shy, of her, of him. “In a manner of speaking.” I cleared my throat and walked on. “He made it plain he wanted to marry me; that I needed only say the word.” Her tread behind me was soft. “I was still deciding, when it happened. And my father thought it better that I marry him quickly, in case it should all come out. But I would have lost my work. My claim on the business.” My self, I thought. I could not have said it out loud. It would have been too callous.
She asked, “So why The Minotaur?”
I shook my head, confounded by the memory of dark paint, the sea of red and brown, the shaggy head, brought straight from the abattoir, set dripping on a stool by starlight.
“Eating up youth, opportunity, potential?” I said, evasively. I did not want to think about that painting. Not even with her. “Inhuman. Unnatural. Base.” I did not want to rip it back open and look at its quivering insides again.
“Naked,” Héloïse added drily.
I laughed. “I do not recognise it now, truly. I was angry,” I said. “The engagement ended soon afterwards. On its own.” I let out a breath, leaned against a tree, suddenly tired and defensive. “It wouldn’t have been right, so.” She waited for me, her face blank but gentle, coaxing me out from under my secrets. I grimaced, cornered, and threw away the grass switch I had been playing with.
“Well, if you won’t explain,” she said.
“There’s nothing else to say,” I declared, with finality. “After all that, my father rather liked the painting. So, there you have it.”
She raised a single eyebrow. “My husband bought it,” she said, walking on. “So, indeed I do.”
“No!” I threw my head back and laughed. “I am so sorry!”
“One for his study, I think,” she said, resignedly, before shooting a devilish glance over her shoulder. “Maybe I shall tell him one day. That it is about a betrothal.”
“Don’t you dare.”
We found an outcrop, with a fine view looking out over the park, the house, the lake, and we stood awhile, fanning ourselves, squinting at the bright water. A pair of swans had flown in, and were drifting, curled like petals, wing to wing.
“Do you think it’s safe to swim?” she asked.
“Not for you,” I replied.
She grinned at me. “The heat is so close here.”
“It has barely started.”
She turned to me suddenly, a question in her expression. But it took a moment for her to ask it; two breaths, one too quick, the other held too long. She said, “But you loved him?”
In her grey eyes, in her frank appeal to my honesty and the unspoken warning that I could expect no less from her in return, I saw so much of what had drawn me to both of them. His laugh; his boisterousness; his sudden and complete stillness; his love of music; his countenance when he watched an opera or read a score; his indecipherable silences. I held her eyes with mine, in mine, for longer than I should.
“Yes,” I said.
She dropped her head for a moment, the pale hairs at her neck springing free. Smiled to herself. Nodded. Looked back at me, clear and level.
“I am glad.”
“And you? What is your life like, in Milan?”
“Quiet. Restrained. Repetitive.” We strolled a grassy path that I had not found before. It led out onto some pasture behind the stables, and the air smelled sharp and animal.
“Like the convent, you mean?”
She rolled her eyes. “A little less restrained than the convent.”
“You have friends?”
“A few. They are older than me. My mother’s circle. They are reassuring company.”
“You confide in them?”
“I find I do not need to,” she said. “Everybody already knows everything.”
“How can society in Milan be limited?” I wondered aloud. My experience of the place had been dizzying, excessive, but I had been younger then, a stranger to the city, and free.
“I am bound by the dictates of my husband’s family,” she explained, “as little as I have to do with them. And they do not socialise. They negotiate. They form alliances, not acquaintances. They ascend.”
“Why do you think my husband spends so much time away?” She grinned at my surprise. “You assumed he was party to it all?” She shook her head. “He hates them. And he depends on them. And he hates his dependence. And so he hates himself. I think part of him fancies he could have been a self-made man, but he has neither the education to excel, nor the character to persevere without.” She knit her brows for a moment. “I encouraged him at first. But then he begrudged me, claimed I thought him ignorant.”
“Is he ignorant?”
“Terribly. But the remedy is simple enough.” Her answers were becoming brittle, short. “It is not his ignorance I despise. It is his indifference. And I confess, I do little to hide it.” Quite suddenly, she turned to stare at me, her true thoughts concealed behind that shield of furious absence which I well remembered. Which I had thought, conceitedly, I might have burst forever. “Why are we talking about him?”
“I want to know about your life.”
She sighed, came back into herself a little, a gate swinging free. “But that is the worst part of it,” she murmured. “The feeling that my life has nothing to do with his. Or his with mine.” We were crossing a stream, and I stopped to lean on the balustrade of the bridge, to enjoy the air moving on the back of my neck. Héloïse grasped the bar next to my elbow, upright as a captain on deck. “Do you want to know my strangest, most shameful wish?” she asked.
“Tell me,” I said.
She hesitated, before confessing. “That I had chosen him.” She stared into the middle distance, empty, as if horrified by herself. She shook her head quickly. “Not that I had wanted him. Only that he was a choice I had made for myself. That I might feel some claim on my own circumstance. That I might feel something for him, anything, that was not founded on resentment.” Suddenly, she tipped her head back, arching her throat towards the sky. “But then,” she added, after a moment, “he chose me. And resents me still. So, perhaps it would have made no difference.”
I watched her, with my arms folded, her eyes sliding shut in the bright sunshine, her mouth falling just a little open. Her body was enjoying the nearness of the water, as mine was, feeling the same air caressing her chest and neck, just inches from me, hearing the same birds and insects, the distant horses. But her mind seemed years away. I knew the sensation, of being lost in the twisting, branching dread of an unwelcome future. How, in denial of my coming impotence, I had built enraged walls against the present.
“You seem so distant,” he used to say to me. “You are not with me.”
I reached out with my hand, touched the crook of her elbow.
Her eyes still shut, her mouth still open, she smiled. I drew my hand back softly, almost at once, but the smile remained. “Tell me about Theresa,” I said.
And the smile, which I had thought beautiful before, blossomed wide and helpless, and her head rolled towards me, her eyes shining with a joyful fear, and for a few moments she could do nothing but smile and shake her head as if amazed, and did not need to say anything at all.
On our return, we were told that the Countess was waiting for us in the study. Odd, we thought. This late in the day, before dinner, it would be gloomy, but we made our way there side by side. We found a merry scene laid out on our arrival; a simple supper of bread, cheese and cold meats had been arranged between the wine tables, a blaze in the grate, red wine already breathing on the mantle, and the Countess herself sitting in her husband’s chair, sniffing at the contents of an open tin.
“Tobacco,” she said proudly, holding up the little container for our inspection. I laughed, flopping happily into a chair, helping myself to some cheese. “I sent Mermoz for some this morning and, bless the man, it took him all day. Snuff, snuff as far as the eye can see, but nothing for a bowl!”
Héloïse sat down next to her aunt, took the tin and held it to her nose. She looked a little surprised. Then smelled it again.
“I had forgotten,” she said, passing the tin to me.
The Countess beamed at her niece’s pleasure. “After dinner, then!”
Bérénice joined us for the meal.
“We need a storm,” she commented. “Horses are all flinchy and tight.”
“One will come soon enough,” the Countess promised. “They turn up out of nowhere at this time of year. Born of heat and pressure.”
“Good you got your walking done today, then,” said Bérénice.
“What did you talk about?” the Countess questioned keenly. “Natural Philosophy? Politics?”
“The war in the Americas?”
“They are teasing us,” I muttered to Héloïse. “Do not rise.”
“Music, then? Art?”
“We did discuss a terrible painting my husband bought a while ago,” Héloïse remarked.
“Really. Which one?”
I glared at her. She was suppressing a grin, but just barely. My eyes narrowed. “You are not funny,” I said.
Her expression broke open. “The Minotaur,” she said. “One of Marianne’s.”
Her aunt laughed. “Héloïse, abominable!”
“She knows my feelings,” her niece shrugged, “that I am prepared to be won over. But she refuses to explain it to me.”
With some dignity, I refilled my wine. “I have nothing more to say on the subject,” I said, “as well you know.”
“Then I am doomed to dislike it forever,” she said with a smirk.
“As am I.”
“One thing I have never understood about that myth,” the Countess said, settling herself with a plate in her knees. “Why was it Theseus that killed the Minotaur?”
“Because he was a hero,” Bérénice said laconically. “Dyed in the wool. Son of Poseidon.”
“But of all the youths sacrificed to the creature, dozens and dozens of the poor idiots, did none of them think to take in a sword, as he did? Did none of them think to fight back?”
“He had Ariadne to help him,” Héloïse pointed out.
“She gave him a ball of string,” the Countess scoffed. “Not a weapon. She helped him to escape the maze, not to fight.”
“Isn’t that the point of the story?” Bérénice said, sitting back, chewing. “I always thought so. Where’s the use in fighting,” she asked, “if there’s no way out?”
It was too much for me. That painting had haunted me the entire afternoon. “And all along,” I intoned nursing my wine, “the labyrinth was the real monster.”
Bérénice shrugged, ignoring my sarcasm. “I’m just saying, it’s very easy to curl up and accept the inevitable, if you think you have no choice.”
“Scores of the poor fools,” the Countess muttered. “Drifting unquestioning into the maze.”
“And so,” said Héloïse, “she gave him hope.”
The Countess glowered. “If it had been me, I would have organised.”
Bérénice chuckled, “Of course you would.” Her smile was gentle. I wondered suddenly if I ought to have seen it.
“I would have gathered everyone together,” Eugénie went on, emphatically, “killed the monster first; found the way out afterwards.”
“Well, good luck to you,” I remarked. “But he never managed it. And he’d been in there since birth.”
“Who?” Héloïse was watching me like a sparrow hawk. In the firelight, I could see all the brown flecks in her eyes alight like amber.
“The Minotaur,” I said, meeting her gaze. “He was a prisoner too.”
“He was the only prisoner,” said Bérénice, turning her methodical attention back to her supper. “Everyone else was dinner.”
The meal drew to a close.
“Do you have your own pipes, both of you?” asked the Countess. “I found one of my husband’s in a drawer. Might be a little ghoulish for you to share.”
I volunteered to fetch mine, and left the study with a spring in my step. The subject of conversation was bound to have changed by the time I returned. I dashed through the twists and turns of house, liberated and undignified. The marble staircase rang with the sound of my galloping feet. I had reached the grand landing of the third floor, when I was suddenly pulled up short. In the shadow by my bedroom doorway, I caught sight of a bent figure, doing little to conceal itself. I slowed.
“Hallo?” I called. “Who’s there?”
The shape turned, bowed, and continued down the hallway away from me towards the back staircase. It was that same manservant. He had been lurking outside my room.
“Che cosa sta facendo, signore?” I called to him. What are you doing?
He turned and nodded, this time dismissively. “Del mio meglio,” he said. My best.
“In camera mia?” I shouted after him. “Signore? In my room?” But he was gone.
I opened the door, breathless.
What did he mean? And why would he be here? I glanced around the chamber. There seemed to be no evidence that he had even entered. Phèdre lay beside the bed, exactly as I had left it, my trunk at its foot. I opened the lid, warily. Everything seemed to be in order. I hunted for my tobacco pouch, and found my little clay pipe within, my mind whirring. The only thing, the only thing that might have given him pause… After all, he would have known the original. I reached into my boot. It was still there, where I had replaced it the day before. I could feel it, cool within its handkerchief, undisturbed. With a surge of relief, I let the trunk shut with a thud, stepped away as if the thing were an explosive. And then, I considered. I opened the lid again, took the miniature out, unwrapped it, and weighed it in my hand.
We were not doing anything wrong. I stood up. I breathed. We had done nothing of which we ought to be ashamed. Any concealment, then, would provoke more speculation than the token itself. I headed back down to the study, my mood dark.
Anxious questions tumbled in my conscience. Had we truly done nothing wrong? Was it possible, even after so long, for our meetings ever to be indifferent? And if they were not indifferent, if either or both of us knew them to be far from indifferent, was the pursuit of them alone worthy of reproach?
Self reproach, perhaps, but not scrutiny. Surely, we were risking no more than our own hurt feelings. I thought back over my conduct, over hers, from the past day. It had only been a day. Could we have given any cause for suspicion? My resisting impulse after impulse, more mindful of her circumstance than her inclination. Her calm assertion that he could look all he liked. Because there was nothing to see. The line of her neck, arching in the sun. The soft, blonde hair, curling before her ears. Nothing to see.
I felt the weight of her image in the pocket of my dress, heavy as a lie.
As I retraced my steps through the house, I could hear her laughter. From the hallway, I could see the Countess, sitting with her pipe hanging out of one side of her mouth, one leg raised on a pouffe, wine in hand. She looked like a wizened quartermaster. Bérénice sat with her accounts ledger in her lap, a forbearing spectator, and I could see Héloïse in profile, shaking with suppressed giggles, her hands to her face. I stood for a moment, watching her enjoyment, not wishing to spoil it, and felt my stomach sink further and further with growing tenderness and guilt.
“This is how they smoked on the docks in Marseille!” the Countess said, gurning as I entered.
“It is nothing like,” Bérénice groaned, long-suffering, “as you are well aware.”
“You have to imagine that this is a barrel, Marianne,” the Countess interrupted, “and this a cotton bale or maybe a coil of rope, comfortable stuff, rope, and then they would sway, as well, poor things. Sea legs still adjusting. Or perhaps,” she laughed, “it was the fearful stuff they all drank.”
I sat down on the sofa next to Héloïse and tried to join in the merriment. But, after our time together, the Countess knew me too well. She straightened in her chair immediately, removing the pipe stem from her teeth. “Something is amiss,” she said.
“There was a man,” I said quietly, “outside my room, when I went upstairs.”
Héloïse’s face froze in place, her eyes suddenly guarded. I did not know what to say in front of her aunt, how much to warn, how much to conceal.
“He seemed to speak only Italian,” I said.
“Strange,” the Countess said, her voice tinder dry.
“I wonder whether the poor fellow was lost,” Bérénice added with a raised eyebrow.
“No,” Héloïse replied icily, putting down her glass. “He is always exactly where he means to be.”
Eugénie observed her niece. Observed me. Airily, she said, “I did think it an odd decision, that a personal valet should attend upon the wife, rather than the husband.” She left the question that was not a question hanging for a moment, before concluding. “But it is the custom, in Milan, perhaps.”
Héloïse responded slowly. “It is not my custom,” she said, “and the decision was never mine to make.”
Our hostess’s eyes narrowed for a moment. Then, she seemed to come to a resolution. “I do believe,” she said, “that there are keys to both your rooms, should you wish to avail yourselves of them.” Her eyes flicked between us. “Single copies, are there not Bérénice?”
“Indeed there are. Accessible with a minimum of fuss.”
Héloïse was already shaking her head. “Thank you,” she said. “But no.”
“No.” The Countess looked to me. “And you, Marianne?”
I shook my head. “A locked door can often cause more problems than it solves,” I said.
“Well,” the Countess replied, holding up a hand, “I can only bring you to water. The option is there.”
I reached for the wine, filling first Héloïse’s glass and then my own. She had barely moved, staring through the carpet into whatever furious purgatory lay beyond. I took the tobacco tin. I filled the bowl of my little pipe, tamped it, tested the draw, lit up. As I allowed the false light to burn out, enjoying the first scent of the blend, I became aware of Héloïse’s attention, that her head had turned, and that she was following my habitual movements with watchful eyes. As I lit up again, I passed the pipe to her so naturally, that it was proffered before I could check myself. She stared at my hand, the glowing bowl, the little pale stem. She accepted in hesitant fingers. And then almost immediately passed it back, untasted. Nothing to see.
But perhaps something to hide.
Pride leapt unbidden in my stomach, rebellious and glad. “It’s good,” I whispered, my voice gulping in my throat. “Much better than mine.” Her eyes flicked back to me, but the mask had dropped down firmly, and I could not see past it. So, I took the pipe back from her, allowing my hand to cover her fingers for just a moment.
And felt the slightest catch in her breath.
I smoked slow mouthfuls, careful not to look at her, careful of my distance, careful of my attitude. And for the first time, I realised to my horror, that my guilt was tinged with excitement.
Bérénice stood suddenly. “It’s getting dark,” she said, in a voice which was emphatic and strange. “I’ll draw the curtains.”
The Countess looked at her curiously. “It will be close, with the fire,” she said.
But Bérénice marched smartly over to the long, dark windows, and snapped the first of the drapes over. “He is outside,” she mouthed as she moved between windows.
The Countess frowned. “What on earth for?”
Héloïse did not move an inch. Her eyes were lowered. But the colour in her cheeks burned, and the muscle in the hollow of her cheek drew tight like a bowstring. I smoked, as calmly as I could. I hoped my composure would reassure her, but when her eyes lifted to meet mine, I could see that they were agitated. Even when the second curtain clinked safely to, there was no sign of relief. She did not blink. Did not move. She held my stare, as if willing me to hear her thoughts, as if behind the mask of her eyes she were bellowing.
“I wonder, Bérénice,” the Countess said smoothly, “if you and I might take a turn on the lawns outside. See if we can’t catch ourselves a voyeur.”
“Aunt.” Héloïse said the word without emotion. But it was a plea nevertheless. Or perhaps a warning.
The Countess’s reply was firm. “This is my house, Héloïse. If your husband wants to play the bully here,” she said, sweeping out, “then he’ll just have to buy the wretched place.”
We were alone.
I wanted to ask her so many things. What does he know? What does he threaten? How long has he watched you? But, despite curtains, shutters, glass, solid stone walls, I did not trust that our conversation was truly private. He was at every window, around every corner, behind us at every turn. I sat, holding her eyes with mine.
Then, I reached into my pocket, and pulled out the miniature. I held it face up resting on the seat between us. Héloïse was utterly silent for a minute, motionless. She was looking at the little oval in my palm, her face so fixed and blank that for a moment I wondered if she might have been angry. But then, she reached out with one hand, and brushed the drawing with her fingertips, as light and gentle as if she stroked a fledgling.
“It was in my trunk,” I whispered. “I did not know what to do.”
She sat, touching her image as if she had not heard me, as if she was entirely lost. At last, she breathed, “You put me under glass.”
I could not help the smile that came, the sudden surge of feeling, bounding through memory. “I did not want you to fade,” I said.
She looked at me, a new light in her face, and without breaking her gaze, she took the miniature from my unresisting hand. She rose. She walked slowly toward the fireplace, examining her past self with eyes intent and wide. I thought, for one awful moment, that she was going to cast it into the flames, but she walked past, and delicately settled the picture in the bureau, hidden in the shadow of an ink well, just far enough out of sight that even someone familiar with the room would likely miss it. She lowered her hands gingerly, and stepped away, her face ever attuned to it, checking, ensuring that it was safe.
I knew that she was right. No locked doors. No concealment. Nothing to see. But I could not meet the wax eyes where they challenged me from across the room, and my hands shook as I drew on my pipe, trying to calm the storm raging in my chest. It was all I had of her, and she was so exposed and alone.
She sat down beside me as I smoked. After a while, I felt her weight on the sofa shift slightly. She was holding out her hand, waiting. Tentative, I took the pipe from my mouth. I offered it to her again, and this time she accepted, her fingers warm and steady. She placed the stem between her lips. She drew on the pipe slowly, held the smoke in her mouth, and drew again. Her lip clung to the clay for an instant. I watched its subtle pull, barely breathing, before she handed the bowl back to me, her eyes grown very soft. I drew on it in turn, caring less now for the flavour of the tobacco, than for the warmth of her eyes on my mouth, than for the hitch in her breath when my lips closed over the clay where her own had been so recently. The only sounds in the study were the fire, the ticking of the great clock, and the swell and sigh of our mirrored breath, as we passed the pipe back and forth between us.
With the drapes closed, the room was fast becoming an oven, and I could feel the sweat forming in the corners of my elbows and knees, at my hairline and the neck of my chemise. I could see a sheen forming on Héloïse’s neck and temples, on her throat. But the heat, like the smoke and the silence, felt somehow holy; as though we should not wish it away. As though the heat would be one element we remembered clearly of this moment, when other details had smudged, and run, and rubbed themselves out. I was handing the pipe to her, her hand closed over mine, when I asked her softly, “Where is yours?”
Her chest rose and fell evenly. I could smell her perfume, grown heady in the heat. Her mouth, full lips, a little dry always, where she wiped at them, bit them, worried them, hung open for a moment. Her hand was so vital, so warm.
“Safe,” she said.
And I could not have looked away. Had the rug at the hearth caught light and the whole room burned, and had we burned with it, I could not have looked away.
The Countess and Bérénice returned, too soon, and far too late. Héloïse sat away from me, unhurriedly, but she suffused every chamber of my body, every particle of the atmosphere. I could see her still, like paint smeared through space, filling the air between us. She left the little clay pipe in my hand, and my blood rushing through and through my ears, like the steady pawing of hooves. If I leaned forward. If I only leaned, it would be into her.
“There, Bérénice,” the Countess exclaimed, returning to her seat and fanning herself wildly, “did I not tell you? A veritable Inferno.”
“The second circle at most. No lower,” Bérénice answered, whipping back the drapes and throwing open sashes and shutters. “Just wait until June hits.”
“Did you find him?” I asked.
“No,” the Countess replied. “Gone by the time we got out there. And yet,” she said, tearing off some bread, “I think we had already made our point.”
“Or he had made his,” Bérénice countered, glaring out into the park.
Héloïse stood up thoughtfully, her hands pressed against the front of her skirts. “Marianne is right,” she said. “Grandmama’s reading room would be more temperate, in the warmer evenings.” She did not look at me, before walking over to the door. “We should open it up tomorrow, if you are still of a mind to.”
The Countess watched her niece with curious eyes. “Yes. Capital suggestion.”
She left without another word, without a backward glance, and closed the door behind her as she went. I listened to the march of her feet fading through the house, and smoked slowly, anxious to eke out the last of the bowl, afraid that the taste of the tobacco might be my last connection to the moment, to the feeling.
The Countess’s voice cut across my trance. “Yes,” I said. “Yes?”
“I asked you whether she had been out of sorts all day?”
The pipe was finished. I held it in both my hands, looking into the sad, spent little crater, before standing to knock it out into the fire. I did not look at her picture. I did not give her away.
I said, “She has been out of sorts these past eight years.”
I wandered back to my rooms through the darkening house, the swing of my feet and the tap of my heels keeping pace with the tick of the clock, with the rattle of the cicadas. I was elated, bewildered, my sleepy head full of her. Full of all the sweet, insensible memories that my body had apparently kept precious all these years without my knowing. Your strong fingers, pushing through my hair. Raking over my scalp. Dragging me up the warm length of your body by the crown. I walked past the main stairs, tracing over the bannisters, letting my arm drop heavy into my dress. The memory was so strong, so exhilarating, I could barely walk. I was drunk on it, high on it. And I felt no shame. I was not imagining. I was not stealing. They were mine, these memories of her.
As I weaved past the drawing room, I heard the fortepiano beginning to play, more softly than ought to have been possible with the house as dark and quiet as it was. The opening bars of Cara speme floated unmistakably, steady and sure as the clock’s pendulum, as the beating of a heart. I stopped. “Héloïse?” I whispered. I walked towards the music, into the darkened drawing room, bathed in blue and silver light from the garden.
He sat at the fortepiano, slightly hunched, playing the continuo line one handed. He leant an elbow on the lid, resting his chin nonchalantly upon his other fist, as if it were nothing at all, what he was doing, in the home of a strange family, as the night fell. Nothing at all.
His teeth flashed from the darkness.
“Una bella melodia,” he said. A pretty melody.
I folded my arms. “Yes, it is pretty. One of my favourites,” I confirmed. I was tired of this game. I was tired altogether. I turned to leave him to it. “It is late, sir.”
“È strano,” he tittered unattractively, ignoring me and continuing to play. “Forse pensa che sia una canzone d’amore.” Perhaps you think it is a love song.
Irritating, self-satisfied, patronising. I turned. “Oh, is it not?” I asked contemptuously. “Do, please, tell me more.”
“La sezione centrale. Par che il ciel presti favore i miei torti a vendicar,” he quoted. “It seems that heaven wishes to avenge my wrongs.”
I clapped sarcastically. “My! How your French has improved,” I said. “Well. I’ll admit I am no musician, but I do know that, if you are singing, chances are that you are singing about love.” I shrugged. “Love is the argument for song.”
“It is about revenge, signora,” he said dangerously, rising from his seat. He was wearing riding clothes, dressed for the night air.
“And what is revenge,” I demanded, “without love? What possible purpose can it serve?” He did not answer. Coward. “It is petty,” I told him. “It is vain. It is violent.” We stared at one another across the instrument, eyes flashing water bright in the darkness. “And you know it.”
I climbed the staircase to my room, so angry that I did not care whether he followed. That night, I lay indignant in my bed, and heated, and restive, until the sun flooded the garden, and found me contrite and afraid.
Chapter 5: The Minotaur
“You look ill,” said Héloïse.
The clink of the china seemed to throb behind my eyes, and my bread and butter lay untouched before me. The Countess and Bérénice had long since quit the breakfast room, invigorated by their preparations for the library. “I slept poorly,” I replied.
“You were disturbed?” she asked.
“Yes.” I meant to tell her about my encounter at the fortepiano, to ask her how much danger she was in. But she spoke through my exhausted thoughts before I could gather them.
“Perhaps, last night,” she said, sipping her coffee, “you overindulged.”
I stared at her across the table. Her eyes were tired, her cheeks, pale and a little drawn. If she had not slept as badly as I, and for the exact same reason, then I was very much mistaken. But her mask was down and I could not read her mood. “And you did not?” I asked.
I was now incredulous, much too tired to humour her further. I scoffed. “Well, had I looked at you the way that you looked at me…”
“I have had to learn,” she said deliberately, speaking over me, “a degree of self-control in recent years.” She replaced her cup precisely into its saucer, put both hands into her lap. “Or at least, I have had to learn, when I do falter, to minimise the consequences of poor judgement.”
I raised my eyebrows, my mouth open. “You have learned other things as well, it would seem,” I said at last, deeply hurt. “Coquetry. Double standards. Self-deceit.”
“I do not deceive myself,” she whispered. “I am all too conscious of my weaknesses. And seek only to correct, and guard against them, before they cause injury.”
I finished my coffee. I had not lost a night of sleep on her account to be lectured over breakfast; not for sitting on a sofa and sharing a pipe. I stood up. “Good for you,” I said.
“Where are you going?”
“The lake,” I told her. “I need some air.”
“We were going to open up the reading room.”
“You have had my contribution,” I muttered. “Both of you. You don’t need me.”
“At least eat something,” she called. “Marianne. It will pass.”
I turned at the doorway. I looked at her, and at last I saw something in her face that I recognised; the frustration. The frustration of eight years; walling herself off, absenting herself from all true feeling, from an existence she did not choose; of fighting against every external provocation and every internal instinct. The exhaustion of near constant battle. But I could no longer sit next to her, and pretend. I did not want to. Moreover, I did not have to. I walked towards her, to the table where her wrist lay, tense and wretched, and leaned between her hands. The china shifted.
“Not everything is fleeting,” I said.
I walked out. “Marianne,” she called. But I did not look back.
I went to the turn in the lake, sat on the sloping lawn hidden from the house, my back to the wilderness.
I wanted to weep, but I was too tired. I wanted to be angry, but I understood her too well. And I blamed myself, gripping my fingers into my upper arms, hard enough to ache, hard enough to bruise; for running away. And for not running soon enough, and for not running far enough or fast enough when I knew, when I had known from the start, with every honest feeling of which I was capable.
I lay down, to breathe more easily in the mounting heat, to listen to the wood pigeon and the song of the cicadas with my eyes closed for a moment. To feel nothing.
When I woke, I was foggy, disoriented. I had meant only to gather my thoughts. I must have drifted off, and now, the sun was warm, the sky a wincing blue. But my face, somehow, was comfortably shaded. My eyes did not flinch at the bright heaven as I blinked awake, and my skin was cool, unburned, although the sun was punishing. I turned on my side.
She was sitting next to me, her hand raised next to her shoulder, her shadow protecting my eyes. She was looking out over the water, her visor down, betraying nothing. Her head turned at the sound of my movement, and she sighed through her nose, as if I had unwittingly interrupted a dreadful argument, and she was both irritated and relieved.
I lay there for a moment, on the hem of her skirt, my hand behind my neck, my head resting on my arm. We looked at one another.
We had never given voice to our feelings. When they had come to a crisis before, we had been free to act on them. And now, the very existence of the longing words which brimmed up inside me, threatening to spill out onto the ground between us, was a sign that they were doomed to be thwarted. I wanted to kiss her. Here, where we could not be seen, I wanted to kneel next to her in the bright sun, take her face between my hands. Show her.
But she already knew. And I already knew. Her hand was shading me still. And I was not kissing her. And this, too, was love.
“You are so lost,” I said to her, softly. She blinked at me, her eyes hooded and calm. “And I’m not helping. Am I?”
I asked her, my voice very small, “Do you want me to leave?”
“I wanted to leave,” I whispered, “before you arrived. I meant to. I could see this coming and I couldn’t bear it. That it would be so much the same, and so different.”
“I know. We are not equal any more,” she said. “You have the greater freedom, and I the greater authority.”
“I hate it.”
“I hate it too,” she said. “And that is why we must agree that it is over.”
I sat up, painfully, from the hard ground. “But it is not over,” I moaned. “If it were over between us, I would have gone to you at the opera house. I would have shaken your hand, and asked after your family. But I couldn’t. I could not.” She sat beside me, unblinking, her lower lip gripped under her teeth. “Because it is not over,” I repeated. “If it were over between us, you would have come to me in the gallery, brutalised my paintings. Been rude, and right, as ever. But you could not.” I shrugged at her. “Could you?”
“No,” she answered.
“No.” I leaned back on the heels of my hands. “Because we are not over,” I said bitterly. “We are suspended. We have bottled one another, you and I. Inured against the future. So terrified of contamination, that you could barely look at me, or stand for me to look at you, for fear the glass should break. For fear our memories spoil.” I turned to her. “Because I look at you the way I have always looked at you,” I said. “And because I will not apologise for wanting you.”
The song of a blackbird burbled between us, limpid as spring water. So much time passed, that I wondered hazily if I had spoken aloud, or just screamed my frustration inside my own ribs. But I could hear the hesitation in her breath, and I waited for her, in agonising certainty.
“They would take my daughter from me,” she said, at last.
“I know,” I whispered. “I know. I know. I know.”
I heard the rushing unfolding of her dress. She had risen from her place, and I realised that I had closed my eyes to her, to the bright sun winking off water. “I am going inside,” she said.
I leaned over my knees, miserable, buried my face in the lap of my dress and asked the question I had been nursing for days. “Why ever did you make me stay?”
The sound of her skirt halted. “I missed you,” she said. And then, as she walked away, I heard, “Forgive me.”
I wandered the grounds for a time, paying no attention to the paths I took, weaving from grove to grotto. After a while, I found myself pushing through the wilderness, climbing towards the view over the valley, the sweep of the park. How little time had passed, I considered, since I had knelt here with the best of intentions, determined to honour her wishes, thinking that it would be easy. That it would be enough just to be near her again. How swiftly I had slipped, faltered, from what was right into what was honest.
With a sudden explosion of anger, I grabbed a stone, and hurled it over the cliff as far as I could. I watched its flight, spinning like a knife blade, until dust blew back into my eyes, and I had to turn away. I heard it land, skid down the slope a bit and come to rest, a few of its fellows rattling after; a sad, petulant little sound which faded to nothing in an instant, beneath the cacophony of insects.
There, the universe seemed to say. There’s for your fury. There’s for all your passion. Now, what?
Nothing, I thought.
There was nothing to be done. There was no painting now, into which we could pour ourselves together. I had formed my feelings into words, mashed and moulded, hurled them at her. And she had walked away. I could either follow her back to the house, and submit, or follow that pebble, with so many others, faceless and voiceless, over the edge. It was a fleeting, unmoored thought.
“You’d prefer me to resist. Are you asking me to?”
No. No. No. Because resistance without hope is out there in the dust, smashed at the bottom of cliffs and tossed in cold oceans. Resistance without hope walks upright into the dark maze, with no idea of return. I do not want you to resist. I want you to endure. This gate may be locked to you now, but tie your thread to me anyway. Tie it tight, before you go, and run it through your fingers. Find your way back.
She was right. My hands were restless. I needed to draw.
I trudged through the park. The heat was gradually becoming unbearable. I squinted into the sky, willing one of Eugénie’s summer storms to soar in and quench us, but the expanse was a blank, merciless blue. I toiled up the stairs, my vision glowing green from the dazzling sun.
He had been in my room. I was certain this time. The contour of the sheet was wrong on the bed, as if someone had swept the mattress with a searching hand. My drawing supplies were out of order in my trunk, and my mother’s handkerchief was tugged into the heel of the boot, not folded in the toe. I could smell him in the air. Inquisitive. Thorough. Just doing his job. I took a sheet of drawing paper, and scrawled bold, black lettering across it with my charcoal.
I laid it in the top of my trunk, wondering only after hours had gone by whether it might have been too brazen a provocation. By which time, of course, it was far too late.
I took the servant’s staircase down to the library. The hidden door swung silently to admit me. The three of them sat together in the uncovered room, as if born to it. The newly revealed shelves, white and extensive, encircled the space with their red clad host of books. Tasteful furniture, adorned with flutes and fauns, dressed ranks in perfect symmetry before the long windows. And my portrait, Eugénie’s portrait, was hung over the mantle clock, knowing, and fond.
Only the afternoon before, I would have had the assurance to break into that careful formation; claim my place in their midst. Now, I felt banished to the edges; troublesome and demanding. She did not even look up as I entered.
She was reading. Something in Greek. Her brow was furrowed, her head poked forward, eyes wide. I had never drawn that expression, although it was how I often thought of her, unguarded and striving. I was forbidden from attempting such a portrait now. So, I skirted the perimeter as quietly as possible, took a seat at a card table looking out over the park, and set about sketching the view.
“Do you read Greek, Marianne?” the Countess enquired.
I must have wandered into a slow, Sunday conversation, the kind that spread easily into and through its silences. “Not well,” I replied. I sketched for a minute or two before elaborating. “I fear I have forgotten everything I ever learned at the convent. And I am too ashamed now to have my ignorance confirmed.”
“Héloïse wishes to teach her daughter.”
I resisted the urge to glance over my shoulder. “Her memory must be better than mine,” I said.
“We are teaching one other,” Héloïse corrected. “Greek, Latin, algebra.”
“Very useful, algebra,” Bérénice commented. “Wish I’d learned it in my crib.”
Héloïse turned slightly in her seat. “What are you drawing?” she asked me quietly.
“The view,” I answered. “For reference. I have no recollection for scenery.”
“Or Greek,” her aunt quipped.
“It’s age that does it,” Bérénice said darkly. “Old age. You just wait.”
The Countess laughed at her. “Don’t scare the children, Bérénice.”
“But when it comes to other subjects,” Héloïse said, haltingly, “I trust you find you have a good memory?”
She was apologising, I knew. And it hurt me to know it.
“I used to think so.”
“You two should go out to the folly later,” the Countess said. “Silly thing, but it is handsome, and might do for one of your history paintings. Why Greek, niece?” she demanded suddenly, as if the intervening conversation had never taken place.
There was a pause behind me. “Because it is used to keep secrets,” Héloïse replied. “I do not want Theresa to be fooled.”
Her aunt chuckled at her niece’s frankness. “Fooled by the professions?”
“No,” she said. “By men.”
At that, Eugénie laughed in earnest. “You know, your father would write to us about you, when you were small,” she said. “You and your sister. She was always ‘The Nereid’. You were ‘The Amazon’. Forever angry with the world.”
I felt a pain in my stomach. Yes, angry. Yes, I had said so. But that was not all that she was. She was kind, steadfast, brave, gentle.
“I am surprised he knew me so well.”
There was a mournful pause. “He adored you,” the Countess said. “He died very young.”
“You got off lightly,” Bérénice said. “My father used to call me Beetle.”
“Thick skinned?” Eugénie guessed. “Resilient?”
“Turning up where I was not wanted.”
“And you, aunt?” Héloïse asked.
“The novelty was gone when I arrived,” the Countess replied with a sigh. “The youngest of seven. I was Bub to my brothers. And of next to no interest to my father. You and your father remain close, do you not, Marianne?”
I paused in my work. The sketch was turning out surprisingly well. “Yes,” I confirmed.
“More so than your siblings?”
The wilderness was not what I wanted it to be. It was nothing but a dark line of trees. “I am the only one left.” I wanted to capture its pull, its fascination, the prickle it gave on the back of the neck. “When my brother died, my father knew I would likely be his business partner one day. He stopped using my pet name, then.”
“He called me his Little Calf,” I said. Héloïse’s head whipped round. I was ready, waiting for her, snatching her surprise out of the air. I shrugged at her. “Long legs. Big eyes,” I said. Her expression faltered.
“Perhaps,” she said, closing her book, “we should go and see the folly after all.”
“Later,” I said, and turned away. “I want to finish. And it is pleasant inside, out of the heat.”
“Quite right,” the Countess said to me. “You should enjoy the cool, the sounds of the garden, the beautiful light. All the fruits of your influence, Marianne.”
“I did nothing.”
“Nonsense!” she declared rising to her feet. “It was your inspiration. A triumph, one might say, of aesthetic instinct over sentimentality.” Héloïse flinched, as though she had been slapped. “No more ghosts in this house,” her aunt went on. “Come, Bérénice. I think we should take a stroll before lunch.”
They left together. I continued to draw, although the sketch was complete, and I was meddling with it now. Fiddling, to keep my eyes lowered and my hands busy. She had not returned to her book. She stared at me. I could feel it, in the valley of my shoulders, deep into my spine.
“Little Calf,” she said.
I spun in my seat. “What?” I asked hotly.
She was sitting on the sofa, angled towards me, leaning. At last, she said, “You were the Minotaur.”
One breath juddered out of me. “Yes.”
She tipped her head to one side, her jaw gripped. “Inhuman, Marianne?” she asked, as if accusing me of something. “Unnatural? Base?”
“That was how I felt at the time,” I said. “Wrong in the world. Always somebody’s shabby secret. Freakish.” I caught her eye. “Trapped.”
She asked, “Did I do that to you?” There was real pain in her voice.
“No,” I said quickly. “No!” I dropped the charcoal, rubbing my forehead. I had never tried to express these thoughts aloud, even to myself, and I stumbled through them now, ungainly and stupid. “You showed me that another way was possible; another path. But, we could not walk it together,” I managed. “So, I turned my back on it.”
“And your fiancé?” she said.
I shook my head.
“I would have eaten him alive,” I whispered, “piece by piece. No matter how I loved him.” I raked my brow, hunted for the right words, to explain how I could adore his company, admire his accomplishments, share his ambition, value his esteem, grow with him, laugh with him, sleep with him, and still know. “It wouldn’t have been right,” I mumbled. “It just… would not have been right.”
She had drawn a handkerchief from her pocket. She stood, and walked over to the window where I sat. With an awkward tenderness, she reached down, and dried my face, where the tears had run down to my jaw. The fabric smelled of her, made me weak. She pulled up a chair and joined me.
“Taken as a self-portrait,” she said, her voice low and archly playful, “I think I like it better.” She rubbed at a smudge on my brow. “I will merely say that your anatomy, whilst impressive, was inaccurate.”
I think she was trying to dispel my shame. I think she expected me to laugh, and when I did not, her expression halted in its tracks. I held her eyes, like I was something drowning, staring at the moon. “Do you want to know my strangest, most shameful wish?” I asked.
“That I could have been a man,” I whispered. “So that I could have been a choice you might have made.”
It was the smallest movement. Her body angling towards me, her hands dropping to mirror mine, her shoulders collapsing, so that our faces were level. Her eyes, blue, green, grey, amber, were steady, and serious, and her voice, when next she spoke, was low and firm.
“I would not wish that,” she said. She extended one finger, brushed against mine, and the sun rose in my belly, swamping me with light and warmth. “I would wish the whole world different,” she said, “and you exactly as you are.”
I managed a rueful smile. “As I was, you mean.”
She shook her head. “No.”
The clock on the mantle struck the hour. Someone would be through to tidy away the morning’s chocolate. We paused together across the card table, a mutual hiatus of dipped eyes, pressed lashes, held breath, watching one another’s hands in silence. I glanced at my drawing, and saw that I had unwittingly added figures into the landscape; two women walking arm in arm toward the wilderness. I frowned, lifted my eyes to the window, but there was nobody there. Eugénie and Bérénice, perhaps. Or the sketch of a memory, a single strand untangled from the whole, floating free. A maid entered, bobbed, collected the tray, retreated through the hidden door. We waited a full minute, the sounds of her footsteps fading down the stair, into the puzzle of corridors that wound beneath the house.
“How strange to think,” Héloïse said quietly, when she was sure we were alone, “that I have another image of you now.”
“Burn it,” I begged.
“No,” she said. “Not for anything.” Her fingers clenched for a moment. “I had to burn the other, long ago.”
My heart dropped as she said it. And yet it came as no surprise. Safe, she had told me. “I did wonder,” I gulped out, “if that was what you meant.”
“He became paranoid,” she murmured, “after the death of our son. He was grieving, did not understand why we could not share that grief. And I was unwell.” She dropped her eyes. “Withdrawn so far from the world that I was scarcely in it. Withdrawn even from Theresa. That was all the evidence he needed, to satisfy himself that I was unfaithful. He went looking for more, all the same. Fidelity, like all divine mysteries, is completely impossible to prove.” She gazed at my hands for a long time. “Marianne, I know every line of that drawing,” she said, “every contour, every shade. I know it perfectly. I see it behind my eyes, a hundred times, every day. I did not do it to forget.”
“I know,” I said. “I know. I saw your portrait.”
She paused, her face full of gladness and wonder. “That came later,” she said at last. “My mother arranged it. She wanted me to spend time with Theresa. She feared for us, that we would become as distant as…” She stopped herself, smiled, her eyes suddenly full. “She wanted it to be you.”
And in a moment, the world opened. “What?” I breathed.
“She sang your praises to whoever would listen, to my husband, to her circle in Milan, to all of the family; that you were the only painter she would trust. She offered to meet your every expense; correspondence, travel, materials, fee. She even offered to house you, if my husband would not assent to it.” A tear rolled down her cheek, and she did nothing to wipe it away. “I thought it was another trick,” she whispered, her voice cracking. “A trap. I refused.”
“I understand,” I said, but the confessions were spooling down from her, too fast for her lips to hold them.
“And when they found another painter anyway, and I asked him to add the book, I thought I was defying her. I thought that I was showing her they could not reach me. That, even with your page burned, there was a part of me that they could never have.” She swallowed. “But now I wonder whether she always knew. About us.” She looked up, her eyes level, and brilliant, as if something long mouldering had been shaken clean. “And whether, at last, she just wanted me to be happy.”
Happy. I would have made her happy. Deeply. Profoundly. I found that I was smiling. “I always liked your mother,” I choked out.
Her face contracted. I remembered a time when such a statement from me would have felt like a declaration of war. But now.
But now. How far the borders can shift in eight years; how far the waters flow downstream to the cold, open sea. “She had a temper,” she muttered defensively.
I had to laugh, and her angry eyes lifted to my face in grudging realisation. “She was not the only one!” I managed, before laughing all the harder, released from the mournful atmosphere, and falling back in my chair.
And the outer edge of my foot brushed against her shin.
I saw the breath swell suddenly in her chest, heard the sudden inhalation. Her mouth loosened; her eyes grew focussed. I scrambled to sit upright, to confess the accident. But she did not look away from me. None of the shocked modesty of the study; nor the self-restraint of the lakeside; just her stare. To apologise was useless. It was not the act that had been guilty, but the response. The silence stretched out, all of our laughter suddenly run dry.
“You would have been engaged,” she said eventually, her voice tight, “back then.” I nodded. I did not trust myself to form words. “So, perhaps you would not have come, after all.”
My throat contracted. My savage self was clawing along my snaked innards, screaming, Yes! Yes, I would have come! I would have burned oceans. Murdered gods. Buried stars. Of course, I would have crossed the Alps for you. But bashful honesty whispered in my memory. You did not so much as cross an opera house for her.
At long last, I haltingly confessed, “I cannot tell. I would have needed to know what you wanted. What you wanted to happen.”
“And if those,” she said, “were two different things?”
I took a moment to consider her meaning. “Then,” I answered, “I would not have come. It would have been cruel, to make you choose.”
Her eyes became distant. “People choose,” she muttered. “This is not a tragedy. This is proof that we are still alive.”
At some point in the silence that followed, under the table, without anything being said, our hands met. She did not take, nor did I reach. There was simply a moment before we touched, and then, there was the time after, when everything stilled, and the recently grand concerto of the world dropped to pianissimo, allowing the whisper of skin hushing over skin to soar into the coving on held breath and steady heartbeats. Our fingers wove together, as naturally as two wings folding, and her touch raced up my arm and down my spine, and she was everywhere, unravelling me altogether, as I knew I must unravel her. Her thumb stroked over mine, just as mine brushed along her forefinger. And I wanted to laugh and weep at once, because they were one and the same thing, because they always had been, and I could not understand how I had ever imagined my heart had room enough for only one.
When the Countess and Bérénice walked by the window, waving to us that lunch was about to be served, we did not disentangle. Not just yet. Our hands were out of sight. There was nothing unusual in how we were seated. We nodded back our understanding and held on. When we heard their voices in the hallway and our eyes met, I gripped her tighter for an instant, felt her palm grow damp, and her thumb press mine more strongly, knowing that the moment was coming. Closer. Closer. The moment when we would have to let go.
Chapter 6: Ghosts
The day rushed in with them as the grand doors opened; all clatter and bustle and fuss. Héloïse and I released hands at the same moment, drawing back, our breathing stammered. “How was the folly?” I asked.
My voice emerged hoarse and brittle, but my hand; my hand was singing, the thread of its melody arching wide through the charged air, a line of living silver.
“Too hot!” the Countess replied. “Devilish hot. You did well to stay inside, both of you.”
Héloïse had risen and moved away from me. She sat, on the sofa by the fireplace, motionless. But I could feel her, lancing through space, bound, shining, around my fingers.
“And those insects making such a racket,” Bérénice muttered darkly, ringing the bell for lunch to be brought through. “I can see why you walk at night, Marianne.”
“You dislike the sound?” I asked.
Héloïse had picked up her book of Greek, her face solemn. Slowly, and without looking up, she wiped at her mouth, drawing her thumb over her lips, her fingertips resting, for just a moment.
“It’s not the sound so much,” Bérénice replied evasively.
“She dislikes summer storms too,” the Countess laughed.
“Don’t remind me.”
The Countess’ eyes jigged, glancing between the two of us where we sat, the colour high in our faces. “Héloïse,” she said, “do you remember the big poplar tree that used to grow at the end of the eastern drive? It would have been there, oh, until you were sixteen, seventeen.”
Bérénice rolled her eyes heavenward, and left the room directly with her hands clamped over her ears muttering, “Sainted Mary give me strength.”
Héloïse seemed to shake herself awake. “Yes, I remember,” she said, sounding preoccupied. “With the double trunk.”
“The very same,” said the Countess, clapping her hands together. “It blew down one year. I say blew down! It fairly split in two. Eaten to sawdust inside. And Bérénice was sheltering underneath the thing when it fell. She was quite unharmed, but, poor woman, she got a face full of cicadas.”
I think she was surprised that neither of us joined in her horrified laughter.
“I forget she has been with you so long,” Héloïse murmured.
“Yes,” said the Countess, hastily dabbing her own eyes. “Nigh on twenty years. She’s a fixture. One of the family.”
“And before that, she was in Marseille?” I asked, distracted. It was an innocent enough question, but the Countess’s head whipped round, her eyes suddenly sharp. She did not contradict me, although it looked as though she might have liked to. I asked, confused, “Did your paths never cross there?”
One eyebrow rose very slowly. “They never did,” she replied.
Lunch was agonisingly quiet. The Countess had become oddly taciturn, and Bérénice, ever attuned to the mood of her mistress, adopted an attitude of irritated motherly concern with everyone, chewing pointedly, her eyebrows raised. “Neither of you eating?” she asked.
I glanced from my own untouched plate to Héloïse’s. She looked pale, which made her eyes seem larger in her face. How ridiculous we must have looked; two grown women pretending politeness, sickening like novices over nothing. Over a conversation. An understanding. A touch of hands.
I had taken her hand before, unmoved. But now, she had begun to release something long wound tight inside me, something I had defended as I wove it up as necessary and right and true. But now it suffocated me, like a scarf to the face, like laces drawn too tight, and its slow release was both liberating and terrifying.
Is it the same for you? Please. Please let it be the same. If I only pull this away, will you understand? If I only lean in.
“The tobacco last night disagreed with me,” Héloïse said at last.
I held her stare. Vous avez raison. J’ai peur. “Or the wine, maybe,” I said.
The Countess’s cutlery hit her plate with a clatter. “It was the sun, you pair of idiots,” she declared. She stood, blotting at her mouth with her napkin. “The heat. If you will go out until noon with no hats! Bérénice, let us arrange for jugs of fresh water to be brought through. Perhaps they can rest off whatever dudgeon this is before dinner.”
“Sulking,” she said as she swept out. “I cannot abide sulking.”
Bérénice asked for my help fetching the water. I was loath to leave Héloïse, but she had not spoken to me; she had barely looked at me. She had taken up her book and moved to a single seat by the window and would not meet my eye. I remembered her odd skirmishes into intimacy from the island; how she would fire off a volley, and immediately retreat into her privacy, before advancing again, further, bolder. She sat, dark against the bright summer sky, her blonde head tipped over her book of Greek, her lashes lowered.
In the serving tunnel, Bérénice stopped me, her hands on her hips. “What upset Eugénie?” she demanded. “What was said?”
“Honestly, I could not tell you,” I replied, trying to keep my voice low.
Her tone was frank. “Was it about me?”
I balked, hastily cast about my conscience. “Yes,” I confessed. “I asked if you and she had never met in Marseille. Before you worked here.”
Bérénice leaned back, puffed out her cheeks. “There,” she said at last, her arms crossed. “And I thought you were brighter than that.”
“I had no idea of its causing any offence.”
“I’m sure,” she said, her voice somewhat deflated. “But like I said. Thought you were brighter.” She continued down the passage, at her usual relentless pace. “She’ll brood it out,” she called over her shoulder. “You’ll see. She likes you two.”
I caught her up, in a sudden hurry of anxiety. “And you?” I asked. “Bérénice. If I have placed you into any difficulty with your mistress…”
“You placed me?” She spun on her heel. There was incomprehension on her face. “Marianne,” she said, “you insult me, if you think I keep a single secret from that woman. And you have vastly misjudged her, if you imagine that she keeps anything from me.” She shook her head, as she set off again for the kitchen, muttering to herself as much as to me. “You placed me in difficulty? Cheek. As if I had anything to hide. Look to the beam in your own eye before…”
I felt, actually felt, the blood drain from my face, like the hand of a corpse dragging over my brow and chest.
I had taken no breakfast, I reminded myself. No lunch. Precious little water, and slept under the noon-day sun. That was all this was. But, even so, the faintness flooding me felt like blind terror.
Bérénice slowed, paused, turned in the cool half light, her expression suddenly contrite. “That was low of me,” she said. “I got my dander up.”
“If I have done anything,” I said cautiously, each word weighed, hoisted, like white flags across a field of battle, “of which I need be ashamed, I wish that you would say so.”
She looked at me directly. “Have I?”
I answered with great care, “Not to my knowledge.”
She nodded slowly. “Suppose that makes us equal,” she said, patting my arm.
“We always were,” I replied. “Truly.”
She nodded again, continuing down the tunnel. “Good,” she said. “That’s enough of that, then.”
The kitchen was peaceful. A young maid stood at the table, preparing vegetables for the evening. She did not look surprised to see me. There was no curiosity on her smooth face. No mirth. My fears of widespread rumour quieted a little.
“Mermoz wants to see you,” she said to Bérénice as we entered. “He’s not happy.”
Bérénice’s eyes flicked to meet mine for a moment. Only a moment.
“This about our Milanese friend?” she said pointedly.
The girl nodded. “Making his demands again.”
“What is it this time?” Bérénice asked, in that same deliberate tone.
“Like always. Wants his horse ready after dark. To be let back in the estate before daybreak tomorrow. Mermoz is sick of it: wants to give him a key and be done.”
Bérénice turned to the girl, suddenly adamant. “Julie, on no account is Mermoz to give that man any keys. Do you hear me? No keys!” She wiped her hands, and again, caught my eye. “I just wonder where he goes. Away all night like that.”
Julie shrugged. “Must be Toulon.” She shot a naughty smirk in our direction. “Some itches you can only get scratched in a port town.”
Back in the tunnel, Bérénice muttered to me as we walked. “So, then,” she said, “how bright are you?” My mind was spinning, trying to control the wild rejoicing terror in my gut. He leaves. He leaves at night.
I paused, breathed deep, considered. “He is disciplined,” I said quietly. “Diligent. He would not go all that way for company. Certainly not more than once.”
So. “The post,” I said. “The post comes through Toulon. He is waiting for something. Important enough for him to abandon his mistress; secret enough that he cannot risk it coming here.”
Bérénice nodded. “There,” she said, evidently satisfied. “Bright after all.”
“Search me,” she muttered. “Nothing good for the lady Héloïse, I’d wager.”
“She has done nothing wrong,” I whispered, so frustrated I could have crushed the jug with my hand.
“Not in eight years?” Bérénice asked. “That’s a long time for virtue and outrage to live together in a body; a young, healthy body at that.”
Your back. The muscles of your neck and shoulders, shadows shifting as your head turned, your eyes scarcely open, searching for my mouth with yours. Impatient. Your hair, fine and pale and soft. I know how it smells. Pressing my lips to it, into it. I know.
“Hold still.” Murmuring into your skin. Unlacing you, fingers trembling in golden light, feeling your surge and swell. “Hold still.”
I looked Bérénice in the eye. “You have vastly misjudged her,” I said seriously, “if you imagine…”
“Yes, yes,” she interrupted shrugging off my echo. “Her aunt says the same thing. Even so,” she said, striding away again. “Seems strange to me. The woman has fire.”
Héloïse was not in the reading room when we returned. Her book was laid open on the card table, the chair angled haphazardly. I determined to wait, rather than go looking. I wanted to gather my thoughts. Untangle them.
I was alone, then, when I found her sketch.
At first, I noticed only in passing that the drawing was not a landscape. And with surprise I realised that it therefore was not mine. Then, I saw that it was a face. And that the features were dark, the eyes large, the chin a little sharp. I picked it up. Held it to the light. She had used my charcoal, and misjudged how much it would crumble and smudge. I smiled. The ten year olds I taught often made the same mistake. She would be washing the dust off her hands. Maybe her sleeves. The technique was unpractised, instinctive. It looked as though she had started with the eyes, worked them in detail and then built the face out. I found myself smiling as I looked, all thought of anything else fled from my mind.
I heard her footstep at the other end of the room, listened to it slow and halt. After a moment of silence, she said, “You are laughing at me.”
“I rather think I am laughing at myself,” I said. I beamed at her. “This is me?” As she approached slowly, she seemed to be caught between embarrassment and pride.
“I was wondering,” she said, “about your memory for landscapes. And I realised that I did not know if I could draw you.”
I nodded encouragingly. “It is a good first attempt,” I said. With as much care and reverence as I would give the work of any defensive pupil, I placed the drawing down on the table, in the sun, where she might use it as a benchmark, and drew her a fresh sheet of paper. “But in my experience,” I said, “it is easier with a model.”
She gave me a look from under her eyebrows, one that knew she was being challenged, that I had made a dare to her competitive nature. She moved like a fencer to the other side of the table, sat down smartly, and took up the charcoal in her left hand with a flourish. I sat for her. The news about her servant could wait, I thought. He could rot, for all I cared. I wanted this.
“Put the paper in such a place,” I said, “that you can look at your work, and look at me without moving your head. There. Just your eyes. You may have to drop your chin. Good.”
“It is hard on the neck,” she said uneasily, her chin tucked, rolling her shoulders.
“Yes. This is why we prefer easels,” I said, staying as still as I could. “Now, look up at me.”
Her eyes were green in the sidelong light, their centres honey brown and soft. I spoke into her stare. “My father says that the hardest thing about learning to draw properly, is learning to see properly,” I said. “Familiarity fools the eye. As an exercise, start with my outline. But imagine you are drawing the shape of where I am not.”
She frowned at me, her eyes grazing over the line of my hair, my cheek, my neck, shoulder. “As if I had snipped you out of the room?” she asked.
“Exactly.” Her hand began to move, ghosting in the lines of my absence. “To draw well,” I went on, “you have to learn to draw what is really there. Not what you think is there, or hope is there. Not even what you feel ought to be there. You have to draw the world as it is. And sometimes, that means looking so hard, that your subject disappears, into line, shape, and shadow.”
She raised her head, her expression dismayed. “I don’t want to look at you like that,” she protested.
I swallowed. “Keep looking,” I said softly. “I will come back again.” She returned to her work, her eyes large with concentration. “Good, now, when you’re happy with my outline, sketch in the line of my jaw, but reference it against my neck, instead of my face. Use that line to find my ear, and use the height of the ear to find the brow line, the nose, the mouth.” She went steadily, methodically. I imagined her learning Greek and Latin, conjugating verbs with her child, deliberate and serious. “Keep checking each feature against the others. Keep adjusting. And keep looking,” I reminded her. “I want to see you. For every two ticks of the clock looking at your paper, I want you to look at me for three.”
“I’m on your mouth,” she said quietly, raising her eyes. They were dancing. “So if you smile now, you’re going to have to keep it up.”
I laughed a little. “I don’t know that I can help it,” I confessed. Again, her eyes lifted, and there was a sweet, suspended moment of warm things left unsaid. I let my eyes roam over her fair head, the angle of her determined shoulders, the awkward jut of her elbows, her smudged fingers, broad and veined and clever, gripping the paper like a hawk pinning its prey. And her eyes. Darting. Intent. And earnest. Always so earnest.
“If you draw only what is there,” she was murmuring, “what about your famous conventions and rules?”
She was teasing. “You intend to sell this portrait of yours?” I asked in a whisper. “You have a client with tastes you must satisfy? A slave to fashion?”
Her look was suddenly intense, one eyebrow crooked. “She is most particular,” she said.
“Well, first, you must learn to draw the world as it is,” I said. “Only then, can you show the world the way you see it.”
“Skill outranks genius?”
“Craft comes before art.”
She shook her head. “I disagree,” she said. “Anyone who can hold a stick can learn to draw. Artists must be born.”
I shrugged. “Anyone with leisure can learn to think,” I replied. “Craftsmen must be dedicated. You can sell a well executed drawing, even if it is uninspired. But try making a living from beautiful ideas. You will go hungry, very quickly.”
She continued sketching, tracing in the frame of my face, the hollow of my eyes, the lines of my nose. “It’s good,” I told her, as she examined her work skeptically. “Now, look at me again. And narrow your eyes.”
She did so, her lashes almost drawing together. She gazed at me for a moment before asking, “What am I doing?”
“We’re going to find the deepest shadow, and the brightest highlight,” I said. “Narrowing your eyes helps you to see them without distraction. Where is deepest?”
Her eyes relaxed a little, and roamed over my face, over my brow. “Your hair,” she said. And then, as if seeing it for the first time, “Your hair is so dark.”
My breath caught a little. Something in the way she said it. “Try to differentiate between shadow and colour,” I said.
She looked again. “Under your nose,” she said. “Beneath your jaw. Around your eye.”
“Good,” I said. “Block those in, but not too strong just yet. We must establish the mid-tone. The white of the paper will become your highlight.”
But she had stopped listening. She sat up straight in her seat, the charcoal balanced between her fingers. She tipped her head back a little, the way she did when she wanted to establish control, her mouth open. I could see the shine of her teeth, hear her breath as it whispered over them. She contemplated me. She began to ask, “Is this how it felt when you…” but stopped herself, as if ashamed, or shy. Then, after a pause, “Do you do this to all of your pupils?” she murmured.
“Make them draw me?”
“No,” she said, looking annoyed, but whether with me or with herself, I could not tell. “No.” She shook her head, put the charcoal down, and seemed to be thinking about something, rubbing the black dust between her fingers. Her face broke slowly into a smile. “Your eyes can be any colour,” she said.
“So can yours.”
She laughed once, and then paused staring at nothing. After a moment, she looked back at her sketch, and shook her head firmly. She caught my eye. “There is no hope for me,” she said. She was about to crumple the paper into a ball when I stopped her.
“No,” I said. “You must keep your attempts.”
“Because you will always feel dissatisfied,” I said. “Always. That is part of it. And at some point, you will need to look back and see clearly how far you have come.”
She drew her hands away from the paper, away from my hands. She stared at me, then, as if across an ocean, as if I stood on the stern of a departing ship, and she on an island cliff.
She asked, her voice high and quiet, “But what if I never draw you again?”
I took in a deep breath, held it in my chest, let it stumble back out of me, not caring if she knew I was afraid.
I said, “That is no reason to stop.”
We wandered to the folly, despite the heat, walking so close that our arms touched.
She asked. “Have you painted me? Since?”
I nodded. “Many times.”
We kept time, in stride and in thought. “What colour do you paint my eyes?”
I stared at the faded grass, yellow in the summer sun. “I never show them.”
“Did you know he leaves at night?”
She sat very still next to me, her head leaned back against the stone. The folly could be seen from every southern window. We hid in the shade as best we could. When she spoke, her lips scarcely moved. “Do you think he is the only one that watches?”
I considered. “No,” I said at last.
“Are you expecting news from Milan? Or from Venice?”
She shook her head. “Only when it is over.”
“And then you will go back?”
She did not reply. “Tell me something happy,” she said. “About your life.”
I thought about it for a moment. “I have an accidental cat,” I replied. She laughed. I loved her laughter more than anything. I wanted to take it in my hands and breathe it in. “She snuck in one night. It was very cold. Promptly gave birth.” She laughed again. “Anyway, she never left.”
“When was this?” she asked.
“Last year. Her kittens went home with some of my pupils. But she seems to like her life with me.”
“Is she giving classes while you are away?”
“Of course,” I said. “She charges more than I do.” She laid her head back, her eyes merry. I wished suddenly that we had wine. Or a pipe of tobacco. Something to sustain the moment. “Tell me something,” I whispered. “Something happy.”
She looked out over the gardens, at the house and the glittering windows, at the neat beds and the clipped lawns, the gliding swans. I imagined her mind’s eye was wandering a sunny piazza, a concert hall, a quiet salon or cathedral. A silent library, perhaps. That was where I pictured her, when I pictured her; reading. No, not just reading. In study. She turned back to me.
“Theresa,” she said.
I wondered for a terrible moment if this were a confession of mean comfort. But her expression was peaceful and sincere. And I had never known it possible before, to love a person I had never met so fiercely.
“You should write to her,” I said.
“What would I say?” she asked.
“You could tell her about me.”
She tipped her head to one side, affectionate and sad. “What would I say?”
I hesitated, engulfed by a sudden dejection, a memory of shame. I felt hot and miserable, stuffed in a bag out of sight. “Will you ever tell her about me?” I asked, as carelessly as I was able.
She was already examining my features, her lips pursed, eyes searching, pulling strong hollows into her cheeks. At last, she nodded once and said, “Yes,” as if it were an oath, solemn and joyful. “When she is old enough.”
Something within me panicked. She will hate you and she will keep them. I said, “You don’t have to.” But her expression had already softened.
“I want to,” she replied, her voice very calm. “I want her to know her mother.” We listened to the sounds of the garden together for a moment, to the bees and the cicadas. She put her hand on the hem of my skirt. “And you are a part of me.”
“My aunt keeps encouraging me to see the country hereabouts,” she said as we walked back to prepare for dinner.
“You would make a very solemn tourist,” I joked, but her expression was grave. She stopped, forcing me to stop with her, amid the flower beds and high hedges.
“She suggested that we journey to Aix together.” Her eyes burned. “That I stay in the city while you work. And come back here when you return to Paris.”
I did not know how to respond.
“She thought it would be good for us both.”
The idea seemed fantastical; illusory. Like a trap. “Do you want to?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“But will you?”
She did not reply. She was frustrated. I was failing her somehow. “Would you want me to?” she asked.
My heart sank. “Héloïse,” I murmured. “For what? For more of this?” Her face crumpled, and then became blank. She was angry. “No,” I said. “Not when it would put you in danger.” She scoffed with frustration. “I cannot ask you to!”
“Do not ask me anything!” she said, her voice rising. “Tell me what you would want.”
“I already have,” I said sharply, my temper failing me. “I have already been quite plain. Do not make me keep saying it,” I begged her. “Don’t make me culpable, when it won’t change anything. Héloïse,” I whispered. “I don’t want you to hate me."
She marched away, her head upright, her expression raging. I let her go. I could do little else. I followed her at a distance, watched as the furious pace of her stride tempered itself, and slowed gradually. Then, I noticed the turn of her head, as she checked to see that I was following, adjusting her tempo so that I would catch up without her having to stop for me, without her having to parlay.
When I reached her, we walked together for a while without saying a thing. Her cheeks were a little red, but I didn’t mention it. I had been crying too.
“Do you remember,” I said at last as we approached the drive, and the front door, and dinner, and company, “those few days, when what you wanted, and what I wanted, were the only things that mattered?” She nodded slowly, her face stricken. The house drew ever nearer, like a man-o’-war under sail. “How innocent we were,” I whispered.
Her voice was empty. “How happy.”
“I think I will go away for a couple of days, aunt, if I may,” Héloïse announced at the dinner table. The clicking of cutlery quieted for a moment. We had been a subdued party. “Early tomorrow. First light, if it can be arranged.” She forced a smile. “I find I miss the sea.”
The Countess looked at us inquisitively. “Wonderful,” she said. “We will make arrangements. And Marianne will accompany you?” she prompted.
Héloïse and I looked at one another. “Perhaps not,” she said softly.
Bérénice raised her eyebrows.
“I see,” the Countess muttered.
“I have been thinking,” I said quickly, “that I should head towards Aix sooner rather than later. If there is a storm coming, it would not do to be delayed by it.”
“No,” our hostess agreed, examining me. “No, that would not do at all, would it?” She turned to Héloïse. “And the seaside is, of course, best enjoyed during a storm.”
“Are we discussing the weather?” Héloïse asked, her tone just a little dangerous. “How terribly mundane.”
“How bourgeois,” Eugénie agreed quietly. “Yes.” After a moment of silence, she put down her fork and folded her hands into her lap. She fixed her niece with a serious eye. “Did I do wrong?” she asked.
My heart vaulted. Curious coincidence. All the little rivers that flow together, from Milan, from Paris. But not without help. Not without a thread to follow. I never did believe in fate.
“No,” Héloïse replied simply. “No. I will always be grateful.”
“Was I wrong, Marianne?” the Countess appealed to me.
“No,” I said, only half believing it. I smiled gently. “Some friendships are simply the victims of poor timing.”
I heard Bérénice murmur, “Amen.”
“You young people,” Eugénie breathed, dejectedly. “Decency will kill you all in the end. From the inside out.” For a space of some minutes, she seemed to have given up on us. We continued eating in a somewhat melancholic silence. But then, the Countess’s cutlery cracked on her plate like a pistol shot. “Do you imagine that happiness is something that is given, at the right time?” she demanded sharply. “To good people? Who are kind and patient?” She shook her head. “Happiness must be carved out, niece,” she said, “with your teeth, if need be.”
I glanced apprehensively at Héloïse. She was pale and staring. “You know the pressures I am under,” she replied. “There is more than mere happiness at stake.”
“There always will be,” Eugénie stated. “I guarantee you. And there will always be the promise of a more prudent moment, of more auspicious circumstance. And after all that, you will look back over years and years of self denial, and feel nothing but regret.”
Not that word. Any word but that.
“You speak from experience?” Héloïse demanded, her tone blank all of a sudden, a slate wiped clean.
“And what have you to regret?”
“Héloïse,” I whispered, but she batted me away.
“You are free. You are secure. You can look back on a marriage to a man who was generous. Intelligent. Creative. Caring.”
“Memories make for indifferent lovers,” her aunt replied, her voice hard.
“So do whoremongers,” Héloïse shot back. “I was purchased by an oaf.”
I saw Bérénice’s expression change instantly. Her mouth shut tight; her hands retreated under the table; she sat up very straight in her chair. And then, slowly, she looked at me.
And I realised that my first instinct had been to look in her direction, and hers had been to look in mine. And I needed Héloïse to stop talking at that moment.
I whispered, “Don’t.”
“Do you imagine that I compelled him to end things in Venice?” Héloïse asked, ignoring me. “For the sake of decency?” She shook her head. “His family demanded that he curtail the expense of a mistress,” she spat. “They had budgeted for his buying just one woman. And given that only one of my children survived, the wrong child, the girl child, the child who looks nothing like her father, they were beginning to think his Venetian family might be the better investment. If only his marriage could be annulled. If only there were good enough reason.”
“Héloïse.” I leaned closer, my hand on her skirt.
She did not shake me off. “So, I must fight for a union I did not choose, for the sake of a child who is used against me, by a man who in turn dotes on and denies her. And all at the cost of my self respect, my authentic being, which I swore, I swore I would never give up.” She dragged in one breath. “Forgive me, if I think you might not understand the full compass of my regret. Aunt.”
“Héloïse,” I whispered, my head to her temple. Her hair was so soft. I felt it for the briefest moment on my brow. “Stop.” Her hand was in mine, around and through mine, squeezing like a vice. “Stop.”
She would probably have marched out, had she not been gripping me, but she held on under the table, staring into space; a proud captain, bedevilled by storms, tied to the wheel. After a moment, she quieted.
“You do your aunt a great injustice,” I murmured. And then, “She understands you better than you know.”
Héloïse was already nodding, her entire head and neck, her eyes glassy. “Forgive me,” she breathed, focussing on nothing.
The Countess was looking at her niece, at both of us, with such pity. “There is nothing to forgive,” she said.
Bérénice had narrowed her eyes. At last, she asked, “How long have you known?”
“Only since this afternoon,” I replied.
Héloïse held onto my fingers. She chafed at them unconsciously, as if gradually waking from a nightmare. I circled her palm with my thumb as I talked.
“You said once that Héloïse was nothing like her uncle. But you only came here after his death. So, how could you have known? You must have known him from before. You had lived in Marseille, but never met Eugénie there. She made so much of the city being distressing to her, but talked about it frequently. And then, when our conversation upset her today, your first thought was not that it had been about the city. But that it had been about you.” Héloïse reached suddenly for her glass of wine, and drank deep. Her other hand still held me, as if I drew her forward, showed her the way out towards the light. “And,” I murmured, “your familiarity was suggestive.”
The Countess smiled to herself, and glanced towards Bérénice, who was already looking back.
“There is solidarity,” she said at last, “in having loved the same person.”
Bérénice assented grimly. “More so, in having been deceived.”
“When your uncle died so suddenly, Héloïse,” the Countess said, slowly refilling her glass, “I went through his accounts with my solicitor. We found that significant sums had been laid out over the years, since long before my marriage, all connected to an address in Marseille that I did not recognise.” She sipped at her wine. Shrugged. “He had another family. All throughout our marriage. Under my nose.”
“He was a student when we met,” Bérénice said softly. “Young, silly idiot.”
“I meant to confront you.”
“But you had no idea either. About me.”
“I wasn’t a fool. I knew he couldn’t marry me,” Bérénice said. “But we had our boys. He might at least have told me.”
“Little wonder he found it so hard to leave.”
“Or you to return.”
“All those memories.” Héloïse was frowning into the evening sun. “Spoiled forever.”
“How did you reconcile?” I asked.
Her aunt sighed. “There was no need,” she said. “We had no quarrel. And much in common.”
“Jealousy is a fool’s game,” Bérénice said darkly. “The players are women; the winners are men.”
“I wanted simply to gift you the house in Marseille.”
Bérénice shook her head. “Too many questions from the family.”
“And your boys were ready to go off to school, in any case.” Eugénie’s laugh was bitter. “How on earth is it easier to explain the appearance of two needy godsons than it is to justify giving away a house?”
“Children just turn up, don’t they? Where they’re not wanted.” Bérénice looked suddenly very much younger. “I hadn’t been alone since I was sixteen years old. And I like to be busy.” She patted the arms of her chair. “This suited me better.”
Eugénie smiled at her. “And me.”
We got drunk. All four of us. It seemed the only respectable thing to do. We sat in the reading room as the sun set, with the windows wide, and we laughed and talked. Eugénie taught us a card game, which we played loudly, and badly, until night crept up on our spoiled tricks and fumbling hands. When Héloïse and I were paired together, she sat close by me on the floor, angled towards me, sneaking bold looks at my cards. Her aunt slapped her shoulder, as she fairly wheezed with giggling.
“Cheat!” she cried. “For shame, Héloïse, you are a cheat!”
Héloïse raised her head. “I am told,” she said very solemnly, “that it runs in the family.”
They both dissolved into helpless, hysterical laughter.
“But I do believe,” Eugénie said later, her words smudged together, staring at the ceiling, “that he meant to do the right thing. He may have been a coward!” she clarified. “Indeed, I think he was a terrible coward. But compare his conduct to that of others…”
“… and he is no better than he should be?” Héloïse drawled rolling her eyes. “Trust men to engineer societies that hold women to the highest possible standard, and absolve men by the worst.”
“Men might engineer them,” Bérénice said, “but it’s women that enforce them.”
“Collaborators!” Héloïse exclaimed, downing her wine.
Her aunt reproved her. “Survivors.”
“What do you think, Bérénice?” I asked. “You knew him the longest,” I said.
Her answer was cold. “He was no worse than anyone,” she stated. “He wanted to get his way. And to get away with it. He was rich enough to keep it tidy, so he kept it tidy. That’s what I think.”
Eugénie patted her hand absently. “You’re harder on him than I am,” she said.
“He took more from me,” Bérénice replied, quiet and hard. “I spent half a lifetime,” she said, “trying to find it all again.”
“I need my bed,” Eugénie declared later, when the wine was finished and the cards were scattered like petals.
Héloïse looked at me. “I need some air,” she said. I nodded. I already knew.
“Yes,” I agreed. We rose to leave as one.
Bérénice was closing the windows against the invading insects when she stopped me. Wordlessly, she pressed a key into my hand. The key to my room. She must have fetched it, when she went for more wine. Or maybe, that afternoon in the kitchen. She thought I would want it. She assumed. That I would want. I thrust it deep into my pocket, and could not meet her eye.
And I followed Héloïse into the garden.
Chapter 7: Born of Heat and Pressure
We walked in the night, towards the lake. Of course towards the lake. Héloïse, with her long pale limbs, lighting my way in the dark, her smile flashing as she turned to me.
“Do you think they…?”
I laughed. Shook my head. Surged after her. Get close. Stop her from shouting. Just that little bit taller, always ahead of me, always. “I have no idea,” I said. Her blonde hair in the night. “Does it matter? Should it matter?”
“No,” she said. “No.”
We took off our jackets at the lakeside, watching the reflected light of the moon, the stars. The heat was close and cloying and we sat with our knees raised.
“You mean to leave, still?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “You?”
“Yes,” I answered. “While you are away.”
We listened to the sounds of the garden. “Paint me,” she said. “Paint my eyes.”
I nodded. “Keep drawing.”
“Yes.” And then, she added, “For the rest of my life, I will be drawing the shape of where you are not.” There was a catch in her voice.
“You don’t know that,” I whispered. “Neither of us knows that.” After a while, I said, “I have realised. After all these years.”
“Sophie was right. About Orpheus.”
She laughed at me, a ripple in the dark.
“No. No, he would rather,” I said hazily, “he would rather his wife were dead, than risk their love fading. Swine!” Even as I smiled with her, I was in earnest. “To choose his memories, over her life! Selfish bastard! Let her… Let her be. Let her change. Let her choose. Let her outgrow you. Let her leave you. Let her forget you. But let her live. Let her. Let her live.”
She was looking at me, her chin on her arms, her mouth hidden in her sleeves.
“Maybe the underworld was not so bad,” she said.
“Do you believe that?”
“No,” she said softly. “You?”
I whispered, “Vast. And cold. And dark.”
Her head was turned to one side. I could see the pattern of her ear, gleaming like the pearled folds of a shell. “I wished for your happiness,” she said.
“I wished for yours.”
She said, “I am happy.”
“You’re drunk,” I replied, a giggle in my nose.
“Yes,” she whispered, her eyes shining. “And happy.”
I stood slowly.
I unlaced my skirt. I let it fall around my feet to the earth, stepped out of it. I unhooked my shoes from my heels, unrolled my stockings, felt my toes flex through the rough blades of grass. Her eyes roved over me.
“What are you doing?”
“It’s too hot,” I mumbled.
She laughed. She did not think I was serious. Not until I reached back, searching for the bow on my corset laces.
I said, “I want to swim.”
“In the dark?” she asked. I found the thread and pulled, felt the loops diminish and slacken. I scrambled at the cross binding, yanking the bones apart until it would pass over my shoulders, wriggling free. My chemise covered me, thighs to wrists, like a nightdress, my shoulders shrugged naked. I walked to the limit of the black water, plunged one foot in, sighed at the chill.
“Is it safe?” she asked.
“No,” I said. I sat down on the edge, dangled my legs, watched the ripples slop away from me. “But I want to.” The lake was entirely constructed, made by man for man’s amusement, and the edges were bricked and sheer. I had no idea how deep it was. I took my weight on the heels of my hands and arched my hips forward, sucking on air at the shock of the water plunging over my calves, knees, thighs. Still my toes kicked at nothing but water. Not even weed tickled me. “It’s deep,” I said, hauling myself back out, and sitting on the lip. My body was alive, frantic, but I held back from hurling myself in completely. I looked at her.
Her chin was on her forearms, her eyes glittering, her breath suspended, as if she too were holding off. Waiting for something to begin. I launched myself forward. The water leapt up over me. My chemise, light and loose, rushed up to my shoulders, before soaking and sinking around my body like a shroud. I let myself drop, let myself be consumed by the startling chill, kicking back only when my ears filled with the rush of bubbles, when I felt the icy water seep through into my scalp. There was no end to the depth. I surfaced, treading water, my teeth rattling in my head, more from excitement than the cold. The air above now felt blissfully warm, like a blanket draped onto a fresh bed sheet.
I heard her voice from behind me. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I called back, raising my legs flat to the surface. I squeezed the water from my nose, held my arms out wide. “It’s lovely!” I gulped. “But deep. Very deep.” The stars looked brighter from here. I had my head back in the water, kicking myself further, when I heard her slide in from the bank. I wrenched myself upright, but could not see her.
“Héloïse?” I called out.
I paused for a moment, watching for her movement, for the white flash of her chemise in the night, when she surfaced quietly a little way from me, her eyes tight shut, her mouth gaping. I watched for signs of fright or uncertainty, but her limbs moved smoothly, confidently, holding her aloft in the shuttering water. She stroked the surface with her arms, regained her breath. Her eyelashes were blotted together, single gems of water dripping from her nose, her chin, the dark tendrils of her hair where it had loosened from its pins. Her eyes opened. She breathed through her teeth.
“Everything you had hoped?” she asked, her chest jumping with the shock.
I watched the flex of her collarbone as her arms scooped upwards, the muscles of her shoulder, uncovered where her chemise floated sideways, the subtle shift of her throat, as she panted eagerly at the air.
“Better. And more.”
Her legs refracted like jagged lightning as we swam around one another, circling.
“You have improved,” I said.
Pride flashed across her face, as if the cold had sloughed years of heavy reserve off her frame. “There are baths,” she said, “in Milan. I do not go as often as I would like.”
“With fewer fish in them, I hope.” I swept myself backwards a little way, sculling easily through the water, let myself float open and relaxed, tipped my head back, to cool the base of my neck.
“There are fish, you think?”
I peeped at her. She was scanning through the dark gulf beneath her legs with a look, not of horror, but of curiosity. After a moment, she raised her head, confused seemingly by my lack of response. She looked for me, found me, and in her expression, I caught a glimpse of what mine must have been; deep and breathless.
“Let us find out.” I filled my lungs, and plunged my head beneath the surface.
It was too dark to see well. I could only make out shapes, white blocks of angled highlight, dark shadows, gradations of grey and brown. I was watching for movement, for suspended silver bodies slumbering in night warmth, shocked into frenzy by the kicking of my legs, the arcing of my splayed hands. But I could see nothing. I heard her follow me down, a muffled swallowing in the body of the lake, and I turned in the darkness to find her.
She was hanging in the water. Bright white against inky depths. Her limbs were spread outwards, her chemise floating. Her hair, drifted. I had seen her sleeping like this. Slack. Unrestrained. But in the water, she appeared insubstantial, her wide eyes staring, as if the fathomless darkness itself might, in a moment, suck her away from me into nothing.
Then, for a split second, it seemed as if the water around us was lit by sudden, white fire. And I could see the banks behind her, and the hollow of the lake swooping like a cliff, and the tree roots bursting, reaching down into the forest of weed far, far below us. And we were not swimming, but flying. Then everything was dark.
The storm, I thought. The storm had broken. And we were in the water.
I kicked madly towards her, reaching, straining. I did not have enough air. My lungs were squeezed by terror, flattened bellows, stamped down and burning, yet still I swam towards her, my arms outstretched.
I caught her. Found her beneath the arms, pulled her tight against me, and held, and kicked for the surface, hauled her with me. We exploded into the night, gasping and wheezing. I held her. “Are you all right?” I was stroking at her face, hunting her eyes for harm or panic. “Are you all right?”
She was utterly still, and I stilled in reflection, and the night that surrounded us was still in its entirety, the sky cloudless, the stars jewel bright. There was no broken storm. No lightning judgement, seeking us out. Her hand was on my chest, but not to push me away. Her fingers gripped the neck of my chemise, tethered to me. We kicked together in the water, hip to hip, our faces streaming. I could hear the water slosh against the far bank.
“No,” she choked out.
We hauled ourselves onto the earth, and lay gasping in the hot night, apart, afraid. The water pooled down from us into the dry grass.
“She was right,” Héloïse said. “It is inevitable. This feeling. We should just accept.”
“No,” I said. “We decide what we do. We can choose. We chose before.”
“It is no choice at all, if I am not free to choose what I want.”
“What do you want?” I asked, panting from the water. “Even if it is impossible. Say it once.”
She took in one deep breath.
My mind rolled. But there was no way back. We would wish the whole world different. “How?” I asked wretchedly, sitting up, squeezing at the hem of my chemise.
“On top of me.”
My breath cramped in my chest. My heart pumped, one, heavy surge of pressure that shuddered every muscle in my frame, and then seemed to clench, listening. I dared not blink. “Your weight on me, your mouth on mine,” she murmured. “My arm about your waist.” Her voice was soft, low, apparently calm, as if she had been waiting, as if she had been ready all this time, to say exactly this, exactly now. Her eyes locked mine for a moment, full of a deep, lazy hunger. “Your thigh between my legs,” she whispered to me. “And your hand.”
I was trembling. Every limb. I knew I was staring, my mouth hanging open, my hair loose. My body, every fibre was alive to her, to her voice, to her warmth, her shape, her weight. Cool from the lake, hot from the day. I knew how she would feel, if I only leaned and reached, laid her down on the dark grass. My fingers in her hair, rough with water. Grasping for the hem of her chemise between our two bodies, pressed close, pulling upward, tugging at the threads.
She sat very still, holding her knees, eyes hooded. “And you?”
I swallowed. If I so much as shivered now, it would be over. Something would break the night in pieces, and the shards would fall on both of us. I tried to speak without moving. I whispered. “I want you inside me.”
And her smile was so slow, and her gaze so heavy, and her breathing so deep in her belly, I knew she was imagining me. She was remembering me.
Eager, nervous, curious, hungry, shuddering over me. My hand clamped over your elbow, guiding you, reassuring, imploring you. Your voice, damp on my lips between sweet, urgent kisses.
“Like this? Like this?”
“Where are you going?”
I had stood up. I was gathering my clothes, wrapping my skirt around my hips hurriedly, pulling my jacket over my breasts, clutching my corset. I could not look at her any more. “You know,” I said.
She followed. I could hear her behind me as I crossed the lawns, the light tread of her bare feet over the grass as we skirted the high hedge to the servant’s door. The house was completely dark; all the watchful candles extinguished, its gaze averted. I felt for the key in the pocket of my skirts. I held it tight, until the wards bit at my palm.
I climbed the stairs. My feet were soft on the cold stone, so soft that I could hear her hand on the balustrade behind me, on the rough plaster of the wall, the hiss of skin. As I passed the door to the second floor corridor, her corridor, I was struck by the terror that she would pause. That she would waver. But there was no hesitation, and a sudden surge of new feeling overtook me. I stopped. I turned. She was on the stairs behind me, her arms braced wall to wall, her clothing slack on her body, shifting with her movement. She was breathing hard, her eyes trained on mine.
I waited. I waited for her to leave me. And when she did not, only then, I held out my hand. She took it, and her palm was feverish, and I drew her up the stairs after me.
We reached the landing together, and then the door of my chamber, and when I opened it she needed no encouragement, no invitation. She was beside me as we crossed the threshold.
Floating, light headed, I closed the door behind us, reaching around her hip. She coiled with me, tracking my body with hers, eyes half closed, as if we were magnets, bound by the breast. I felt her deep sighing on my face as I stood, her lips soft and open. I held back.
I took the key from my pocket, showed it to her in the dim light. I placed it in the lock beneath the door handle, and stood away. I waited for her, my eyes on her face, my arms jerking with the need to reach out, to touch her, to hold her again. But I waited. She closed her eyes for a moment, reached past me, and turned the key. One decisive movement. I watched the rotation of her pale wrist, and something within me leapt. I grasped for her as she stood into me, for the fine, pale hair which curled in front of her ears. I held her face between my hands, and for a long moment, we breathed the same air. Her hands were at my waist, gripping me, her fingers spread wide over my loosened bodice, as if it were me and not my clothes she held together.
“Are you still drunk?” I whispered, the words coming out in a rush.
“No,” she said. There was a tremble in her breath, but her voice was low and definite. Her eyelids fluttered a little as she peeked up at me. “Are you?”
“No.” I felt her draw me a little closer. A half step. Thigh to thigh. She gasped, and her breath was ragged. And I knew that she was scared. As I was scared. Scared of wanting something that would hurt her. “We don’t have to do anything,” I whispered.
But she had raised her hand to my cheek. “May I kiss you?”
When she kisses me, I thought, that hand will stroke round to the nape of my neck, and hold me there, fingers threading through my hair, anchoring us both. No one else kissed me like that, held fast. I missed it. I missed her. I had missed her so much. “Yes.”
It was like falling. My mind suspended, surrendered; my body instinctual, feeling perfectly, glorying in its brief supremacy. Press closer here, feel her lips on yours, marvel at their softness, their rough and their smooth, their wet and dry. Mouth open a little. She needs your lower lip. Let her take it. She will be gentle. She was always gentle. Her tongue, nudging yours, not too much. There is time. Let the feeling pool in your belly. Hold her shoulder. Grip tight. She needs to feel you. Closer. Deeper. She needs you.
The kiss broke with a wet click. She was panting against my face, as if we had sprinted here together, pell mell across the years. “Did you feel?” she whispered.
“Yes.” Her hand had pushed inside my bodice where the lace was slack, and now held me over my ribs, warm, damp on my chemise, her fingers kneading at my body through the cloth. Her whole arm was quaking. I had never seen her so agitated. And yet she held me, her forehead pressed to mine. “It can just be this,” I whispered, my words hurrying to her ear, following the dumb animal instinct to give her what she needed, whatever she needed. “It can just be what you want. It doesn’t have to mean anything. It can just be this. Just this.”
Her eyes met mine, her body stilling, settling. “Not with you.” And her kiss this time was slower, softer, the darkness behind my eyes filled with the sound of her, the smell of her, the taste of her mouth, of her skin, the knowledge and memory of her blossoming wider and more brilliant with every surge. “Could you,” she whispered, “with me?” between kisses, against my mouth. “And have it mean nothing?”
I confessed in a gasp. “No.”
She moaned into me, then, and I found that I was laughing, softly, against her face, and she was laughing at herself as it all came back, so familiar and so sweet, and I was tugging at her clothes, as she was at mine.
“May I?” she asked. “Take these off?
“Yes,” I replied, kissing her again, dipping my knees to find her face. “Yes, everything.”
Layer after layer we shed onto the floor, edging ever nearer to the bed between kissing, holding, wondering at the hasty confusion of rigid bone and laces and fingers, and heavy fabric dropped and lifted, smelling of sweat and the garden and the night. At last, I was naked and she stood in just her chemise, dried against her body in the heat. My hand was already balled at its hem, when she stopped me by the wrist, her eyes uncertain.
She whispered, “I have changed.”
I drew her to me. “Oh. Oh, my heart,” I breathed. “So have I.” I kissed her. “But come to bed anyway.” Over and over, I kissed her. “I want you.”
I dozed, my head on her shoulder, she holding me close, her fingers gripping the blade of my shoulder. Too close for the heat, but never near enough, sweat bathing us where our bodies met, sliding and clinging by turns. I had cried out, cupping her face, and she had hushed me with kisses until it was over, framing me to the bed. She had tried so hard to keep her eyes open, fixed on me, her head tipped back, her teeth bared, but at last she had turned, her long neck arching, burying her mouth into a pillow and crying as I kissed her collarbone, dragging my lips, my arm under her back.
“You always sleep afterwards,” she whispered, stroking my hair, and I knew that she was smiling.
“Just a little,” I murmured, slipping my hand across her patterned stomach to her hip, my eyes drooping. “Just for a little. Wake me again.”
I woke to her mouth on my eyebrow, kissing, as she whispered my name.
“You’re not leaving,” I mumbled, surfacing.
“No,” she said. “No. Not yet. Are you awake?”
“Yes,” I murmured. She began to roll over me, her long arm arching like a bridge.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Yes.” I had left the red imprint of my ear in her skin, coiled like a sleeping squirrel. I traced it with my thumb. “Wait.”
I reached up behind her head as she lay on me, belly to belly, and pulled the pins from her hair, freeing the tresses one by one with my fingers, working them through. Her hands were pushed up into my scalp, under my ears. She was holding me on her forearms, and gazing at my eyes, her face at once patient and searching, as if she were reading me over and over, learning me. Something to teach her daughter when the time came.
I stroked, neatened her waves, tucked them behind her ears, drowsily watched them uncoil and spring free. And she watched me, as my movements calmed and settled, and I saw again in her expression the distance between us; the cliff, the mountain, the yawning sea.
She said, “Jealousy is a fool’s game.”
I nodded, smoothing her. “It is.” I stroked her face, her brows, her cheekbones. Her lips. “Because there is no one like you.”
She kissed me, and we tasted of salt and iron. “Let me,” she whispered. “Let me.”
“Yes. Yes, yes, yes.”
We were so nearly asleep when I finally said it, that I almost did not expect an answer.
“Come with me.”
She was silent. I could see her outline by the sheen on her chest as it rose and fell, her arms gleaming. She lay exhausted, like something new born.
“To Aix?” she asked.
“To Paris,” I whispered. “Come away with me.” And the last strands of our old pact unwound as I said it, down and down, until there was nothing left but thread. Memories make for indifferent lovers.
“You know that I cannot,” she whispered.
“Because I want you to have the choice,” I whispered. “Even if you didn’t stay with me. Even if it ended. I want that choice for you.”
She rolled suddenly in the bed and faced me. “What we had was perfect,” she said. “Let me keep it. Please. Please.” As if she did not know that it was already gone.
I tried to smile. “You want your memories more than you want me.”
“No.” And her mouth was on mine. Sudden. Almost angry. Proving herself. “No.” Her hand cradled my face, wet and hot and beautiful. “But they will last me longer. And I will need them, Marianne. I will need you.”
She was wiping tears away from my nose, from under my eyes, from my chin. God, how I loved her hands. “But I’m here,” I whispered.
“Don’t hate me.”
“I don’t. I don’t.”
“Please. Don’t hate me.”
I was barely awake. She was a shape moving in the half light, bending and binding, haunting the foot of the bed; an absence.
She came to me warm, smelling of us both. “Don’t wake up,” she mouthed into my ear, kissing soft, stroking lightly. “Don’t wake.”
“Where?” I mumbled.
“Downstairs,” she whispered. “I have to wash. I have to dress.” A kiss to my cheek. “Don’t wake up.”
“Let me hold you.”
“Shhh.” She covered my body with the sheet, smoothing it over me. My eyes slid shut. My body felt so heavy, I gave in, listening to her movements, tracking her through shadow space. I drifted.
When I woke again, I was quite alone. I sat up. I swung my legs out of the bed. The light outside was milky and new, and I hastily wiped the sleep from my eyes. I stood, hunting for my clothes on the floor. I had to dress. I had to go down. She would be leaving. I pulled the chemise over my head. It was perfectly dry. But it was wrong. It fit oddly around the shoulders. She must have picked up mine in the dark. Hers clung about me strangely. The whole day hung strangely.
I would say something. Something ludicrous. Let him choose the Venetian woman, I would say. Let him, if she is so much more convenient. And then, come. Come to me. Come and live in disgrace with me in Paris. And when you tire of me, take lovers. Take all the lovers that you want, and I will wish you joy with each and every one of them. And then we will meet on Saturdays, and we will drink coffee, and smoke, and laugh about the past, and how strange and quaint we were to love so savagely, and briefly, twice.
I dressed as quickly as I was able without help, found new stockings, and laced myself loosely, pulled on my jacket and some shoes, and went to open the door.
It would not move.
I tried again, but it was shut fast.
The key from last night. It was no longer in the lock. “No.” Fear swept through me like a blade. I rattled the door again, but it would not budge. “No, Héloïse, no.” I crouched by the keyhole, pressed my eye to it. The key was in there. Locked from the outside.
I have wondered since, if there is an antithesis to fainting. If the body can experience a shock so great that instead of insensible collapse, it experiences insensible frenzy. That is my only explanation. I have no memory of the next minutes. When I became aware of myself again, my hands and hip were tired, bruised it would turn out, from endlessly trying and trying the door. My voice was hoarse, but whether from shouting for help, or from simply crying, I have no idea. And the thought which dominated my mind was only that she did not want me. That she did not want to see me. That she had taken what she required, in the only way I could be useful to her, and that when I was alone and vulnerable, she had locked me away to make good her escape. That she was ashamed of me. Afraid of me.
At some point, I must have grabbed the copy of Phèdre. She would have left me a farewell, I thought, or some kind of a message, something. I had clawed through the pages, through and through, hunting desperately for the code, the secret meaning. But there was nothing. I remember clearly seeing the red leather splayed upon the floor where I had flung it, and thinking that it looked like something dead. I had cast it away from me, and there it lay, smashed and bent backwards, changed forever. I picked it up, smoothed the pages as best I could, sick with guilt.
It had been dark, my rational mind considered. There had been no pen and ink to hand. She must have been hurrying. I remembered her hands, stroking over my body as she covered me with the sheet, tender and careful. She had kissed me. I was sore from her.
I cried then. I was still crying when I heard my name called softly from the corridor, the muttered conversation, and the hesitant turn of the key. The door swung open. Bérénice and Eugénie stood on the threshold. Their expressions of concern shocked me into a vain attempt to rally, to pull myself together. But my head swam as I tried to stand, and a frustrated cry left me, unbidden.
It was Eugénie who spoke. “Oh my child,” she said, coming to me, her arms outstretched. “My poor child.” Holding me. Petting me. And murmuring into my ear, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “How long have you loved her?”
Chapter 8: People Choose
It was early. Not quite six o’clock. They took me into the kitchens and heated some water for me to wash my face and hands. Gave me a damp cloth to cool my brow. I was feverish. They made me coffee, and we sat together, saying nothing, listening to the sounds of the waking household.
“Do you still mean to leave?” Eugénie asked me at length.
She looked strangely at home in the kitchens. None of the staff gave her a second glance as she sat at the table. I wondered if, after all, this were her natural habitat, and the meals and entertainments upstairs had been all for our benefit. A grand spectacle, set in motion, for an audience of two.
I nodded. “Today,” I said, my voice thin. “Tomorrow. I don’t know. When it is possible.”
She nodded. “Today,” she said gently.
“We are an animal down,” said Bérénice.
Eugénie aimed a long-suffering glance at her, before patting my hand. “We will think of something.”
For a long time, I stared at nothing. I was bed-shocked, still. Exhausted. Drugged by daylight.
She had locked me in.
I thought of her pale wrist turning in the dark. Her strong, clever fingers. Her long arms, binding. She imprisoned me.
But. I wondered. Did that make her Minos? Was she sealing the Minotaur away within the labyrinth?
Or was she rather Theseus? Sailing away from Ariadne, ungrateful, callous, abandoning the very woman who had given him hope?
Or maybe, I reasoned, she was Ariadne, betraying everyone she had ever loved, destined to be herself betrayed, by a man who did not love her in return? Multitudinous Ariadne, she of many deaths and none, who was fetched away from the underworld by her god husband, and taken to Olympus, her children forged into the pantheon; her crown set into heaven’s vault as stars.
My head hurt.
Or was she Orpheus now? Not Ovid’s Orpheus, perhaps, but Plato’s; not the poet, but the schemer. The coward, who did not seek to reverse his wife’s death, but to cheat his own.
I cooled my cheeks, stopped my thoughts from spinning.
She had covered me with a sheet, so that I would not feel the morning’s chill. She had kissed me beneath my eye.
She was all of these, I thought. And none. As was I. And what we were today, we would not be tomorrow. And the first job of the artist is to see clearly.
She was Héloïse. And I was Marianne. And we were not sewn of enduring myth. But every myth is woven through with mirrored shards of human pain, and so we see ourselves in this strand; and in this; and here. And we recognise and justify our choices, and our penance, and betrayals. And we find solace, that our condition is as changeable and helpless as the gods’.
I drank my coffee.
“Not back yet?” A whispered conversation between Bérénice and Julie briefly caught my notice.
“He’s usually in by now.”
“Maybe he met them on the road.”
“Maybe he took a fall.”
“So much the better,” Bérénice muttered. “As long as he doesn’t darken these doors again.”
I turned my attention away. I never wanted to think about him. I wanted to wipe him from the world.
After a while, I said, “Eugénie.”
But I found I did not know how to ask. Whether my being here, our meeting, had been preordained after all. Not fate, but a conspiracy, from long ago. The brainchild of not one countess, but of two. Spanning borders, and years. And death itself. It was her mother who recommended you to me. She wanted it to be you. She sang your praises to all of the family. I wonder whether she always knew. About us. She just wanted me to be happy.
I did not ask.
She’s very fond of you.
My heart ached at the thought.
She talks about you.
Maybe, in the end, I did not want to know. Instead, I murmured, “Eugénie, your portrait.”
She seemed to understand, anyway. And her eyes danced. “I adore it,” she said. “I will leave my best self behind me; one that I chose.”
I nodded. I refilled my coffee and watched the sun creeping through the windows, feeling the light on my face.
Bone tired, lost in my thoughts, I could not have said when it was that my companions slipped away from me. But at length, I became aware that something, somewhere, was wrong.
I glanced about myself. The kitchen was empty, yet felt somehow on edge, and the sounds I could make out, echoing from the serving tunnel, had become jittery and strange. I rose. I followed them, drifting through the dim archway. I crept along the stone passage towards the secret door, the reading room, wondering if the raised voices emanated from there. But I emerged blinking stupidly into the light to find the library empty, tidy, and filled with the sounds of a downpour. The weather had broken at last, and it fell, dazzlingly heavy, onto the dry earth outside, spattering like applause. My hand was still wrapped in its damp cloth, and I drew it slowly over my face, my eyes closed, imagining rain. I stole through to the hallway in something like a trance, following the sounds of argument, obeying my instinct.
It was him. I had no doubt. His voice was raised. And he was speaking French at last. He sounded drunk. Or hungover. Something about that made me glad. He was hungover and angry and tired. Good. That made two of us.
“I tell you,” I heard the Countess’s voice, haughty and level, “I have never seen it before in my life.”
“Strange, no? That it should simply appear?”
“Change your tone, signore,” Bérénice’s voice was icily quiet, trying to avoid a scene, her ears more attuned than her mistress’s to the distant rumble of scandal.
I stalked into the drawing room. He was standing by the fireplace in his riding clothes, sweating heavily. I could smell the beer on him, worse even than the stink of wet horse. And he was waving something in his fist, wrapped in a half-balled piece of paper, but clearly visible. Small. Green and gold. Héloïse’s miniature. There she was. The last of her.
“Ah!” he said, seeing me. “She arrives. Madame La Paintress,” he declared. “Salve!”
“What are you doing?” I asked as I faced him, feeling a depthless calm rise like dark water.
He thrust the miniature into my line of sight, as if I did not know it already by heart. “For whom did you make this portrait?” he demanded.
“For you yourself?” He faltered. “And you smuggled it here in a shoe, for what?”
“Safety. I keep it with me always.”
“It is precious to you?” His hand edged closer to the open fire.
“Very,” I said, my voice steady. There was a power in my honesty which I think he found unsettling. These were not the truths for which he had bargained. He had mustered for rabbits, and found himself circled by tigers.
“Why then, did I find it yesterday in the bureau of your patroness?”
The Countess’s face was scandalised. “You have been surveilling my correspondence? Rogue!”
I interrupted her. “I showed it to your mistress,” I said. “For old times’ sake. She put it there.”
“For old times? Ah, sì. So close. So intimate. You who have never written to her in eight years. Lies!” he scoffed. “All of it lies! You made this portrait for her lover,” he declared. “You have been their intercessor. You intend to send it to him. You will tell to me the man’s name.”
“There is no man,” I said.
“You will tell me!”
“I cannot,” I insisted quietly. “Because he does not exist. Your master has you chasing ghosts.” I tipped my head on one side. “Why are you drunk, signor?” I asked.
“His name!” he raged, his voice blurring, as if he grew gradually aware of the question’s impotence.
“It arrived, didn’t it?” I said, taking my time to stalk closer to him, looking at the miniature carefully as I spoke. “The letter you have been expecting. Bad news. By the state of you.”
“I am warning.”
“You took great care, rode many miles every night, to conceal its coming from your mistress.” I made my hands into fists behind my back, wrapping my fingers in the damp cloth, just to feel something cold. “Of course you did,” I said, after a moment’s thought. “Because, if the news were bad enough, this bad, she would likely have to return to Milan. Would she not?”
“Good heavens,” the Countess breathed.
“You could not allow that,” I said, seeing his expression falter. “Because that would mean you had failed; to find this man you keep referring to. The man that must exist. The subject of your master’s jealous little fantasies.”
“You will not speak of him!”
“Drunk, deluded, threatening,” I sneered. “You make this your last stand, against another man’s wife. A noble occupation, signore! Revenge without love.”
His face turned savage. A bull at bay. And I recognised him instantly. “Do not talk to me,” he said, “about love.”
And he threw the picture into the fire.
I lunged forward. Thrust my hand into the embers and grabbed. It was the work of a moment, and the damp cloth about my fingers saved me from the worst of it. My hurt was minimal, my object rescued. Not the miniature. The miniature I could not think of, I would not think of. But the letter he had balled up, hidden behind the picture in his palm. That, I had salvaged. I unwrapped it hastily and read what I could make out as he bellowed.
Bérénice grabbed him, drunk as he was, held him under the arms and by the collar. He swayed on his feet, unsure, puzzled in his anger. As I read, he looked increasingly as if he might vomit. And as I read, I wondered if I might not join him.
“Eugénie,” I murmured. “You must send a rider after them. Now. Her husband is dead.”
“What?” The Countess sat down, pale and bewildered. Bérénice called out into the hallway for help.
“He took an infection,” I said. I was translating. The ink was smudged in places, scorched in others. “There was an accident. A storm in Venice. Weeks ago. He has been lingering for… for some time.” I said, unable to make the rest of the letter out. I whipped around to face him. “You knew. You knew this. She could have gone to him,” I appealed. “You… you could have gone to him.”
“And made no difference,” he grunted.
“But for her conscience, sir! For yours!”
He glowered at me, the fight gone from his face entirely, replaced by something I recognised. By self-disgust, and grief. “You have your profession,” he said. “I have mine. We show our masters what they want to see. However heavy the cost to ourselves. Excuse me.”
He shrugged Bérénice off his shoulders, the menace drained from him, leaving him small and a little drab. He made a pathetic figure, as he weaved out of the room, boots dragging, hand heavily wiping over his brow.
The Countess called after him, arch and venomous. “Well, on behalf of my widowed niece, signore, we are very sorry for your loss.”
He turned back to us, his eyes steel. And with a swipe of one arm across the fortepiano, he sent the rose crashing to the ground in an eruption of glittering, skittering crystal, bejewelling the floor like an embroidered cloth.
He bowed. “And I for yours, madame,” he said. And left.
We were all too shocked to speak.
The whole room shimmered, a hundred thousand rainbows reflecting onto the ceiling, the walls, our faces and hands, dancing as the summer rain fell across the rising sun. The Countess stood very slowly. She approached the beautiful wreckage, her shoes grinding over shattered glass, and when she reached the liberated flower, she stooped. She picked it up by its stem, shook the last of the splinters free, and gingerly held it to her nose. She inhaled, and, after a moment, she frowned.
“I cannot decide,” she said, a tiny smile upon her face, “if it is my imagination. Or if…”
She held it out, offering it up to Bérénice, who joined her on the floor, to smell the proffered flower. Bérénice sniffed once, twice to be certain. “Nothing,” she said quietly.
“Ah,” breathed Eugénie. She calmly stood back up, bearing the rose, already wilting, curling, fading, and returned to her seat. She smelled it contentedly. “A memory, then.”
“Your portrait,” Bérénice lamented, as we cleared up the debris. “Your dear little portrait.” The glass was crackled like stamped ice, the face beneath half eaten by the flames.
“It does not matter,” I replied, numb.
I had replaced Phèdre in the reading room. It stood proud of its fellows now, its spine malformed by my anger. I had stroked it penitently, knowing I could never make it right. Let us stay. I missed you. Forgive me. As I stood away from the bookcase, even amongst the hundreds of others, I knew I would recognise the volume anywhere, and I had to turn away in shame.
Bérénice’s face was full of concern. “Perhaps,” she said, “if it can be reset…”
“I can make another,” I replied, not knowing if I ever would, not knowing if I would ever have the heart. “Just as long as the original is safe.”
“You know, Marianne,” she said hesitantly, “it is not over. She will have to fight his family, if she wants her independence. And, from the sounds of things, they will be looking for any excuse.”
“Yes, I know,” I murmured. I had been thinking exactly this for what felt like hours. “I still intend to leave.”
She circled me with her arm, rubbed my shoulder. “Knew you were bright,” she said. “Of course,” she went on, after a thoughtful silence, “can’t borrow a horse for love nor money this time of year, even with a Duchess in the neighbourhood. So, your departure will be delayed until their return. And then, of course, the lads will need time to switch the teams.”
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“Won’t be long, mind,” she said.
“You will look after her, Bérénice?” I asked quickly.
“You think she needs it?”
My mouth was dry. “More than she knows.”
She nodded. “Already in hand,” she said with a wink. “May just be that the distraught niece simply cannot travel to Milan without the support of the understanding and similarly widowed aunt. Shoulder to cry on. Familiar face. Fellow countrywoman. All that.” She sniffed. “Also her lawyer.”
I laughed in spite of myself. “And you?” I asked.
“I always wanted to cross the mountains,” she replied, her hands on her hips. “Suppose… I’ll make myself useful.”
The rain stopped. I walked in the gardens, one last time. My trunk had been taken down already, and we waited only for the returning carriage. I had been here before. I swung my legs through the sodden grass, my hands deep in my pockets, waiting for her. Newly familiar.
I tried to think of what I would say. Under the circumstances. Perhaps her aunt would prepare the way for me again. Explain everything. So that we could just be, without needing to say anything at all. Or, perhaps she would not want to see me. Perhaps, in her mind, she had closed that door already, locked it tight, and would want me miles gone.
I sat in the folly for a while, kicking my feet against the stone bench. And what did I want? Was it a failing in me, as a lover, or as an artist perhaps, to admit that I did not want something perfect? Something captured under glass, to be sighed over eternally by strangers? That I wanted something for myself that was alive, and therefore dying; something snarling, fierce and unpredictably tender. Something that, yes, would rot away, because that is the way of all things that grow. That, even after everything, I wanted her.
And this was not the time. This was certainly not the time. But I had no other. I had crept from my years long sleep beneath the earth into the hot sun, and I must sing.
I heard the carriage long before I saw it, trundling up the shaded drive from the east gate. The horses were going hard. When they rounded in front of the house, they were steaming from the recent rain, drawing clouds behind them. I walked up to the viewpoint by the wilderness so that I could see, so that I could gauge my distance. Eugénie emerged from the house as the carriage drew to a halt, ready to receive.
But before it had even come to a halt, the door was flung open from the inside, and a tall figure burst out. I could hear her. Hear her voice from across the park.
“Where is she?”
And her head had turned towards the gardens before a hand could be offered her, and she had descended before an answer could be given. She was walking towards me. Marching. Her hair so light against the refreshed green that it glowed almost white, her shoulders, rigid for a moment, suddenly shook themselves loose, and she was running. Like a desperate hurricane, she was running. She was charging towards me across the bright gardens. And I could hold back from her no longer. I was running too. And we did not embrace. We collided, with a harsh shout, as our impact beat the air from one another’s bodies. And we could not speak. We could only hold on, like things drowning, kicking against the darkness.
When her voice came back, it was ragged. “Can they see us?” she whispered. “Can they see us?”
My hands were around her shoulders, in her hair. She smelled of us, of our bodies, of our bed. I looked back at the house, at the troubled knot of people by the front door. “Yes,” I murmured. “Yes. Take my arm.” We disentangled, wretchedly, painfully. “Take my arm. We’ll walk. We’ll just walk.”
She was gripped solid, as if shock or grief had knotted itself into every limb. We walked into the wilderness together, skirting the pines around the bottom of the hill towards the lake. When we were far enough out of sight, I covered her fingers on my arm with my free hand.
“He was already dead,” she said. She kept saying it. “All this time. He was already dead.”
“Don’t think about it,” I murmured. “You could not have known.” We walked on, in our shame, and our relief.
“How long do we have?” she asked me.
She stopped, holding my elbow, forcing me to turn into her. Tears streaked her face, but her jaw was firm. “This morning,” she said, “I would have given us away. Had I seen you. Had I thought it was the last time.”
I was already shaking my head, holding both her arms. “I would have said something foolish,” I replied, the tears flowing freely now. “I had already said so much that was foolish.”
She drew me to her and held me again, and this time it was I that cried into her shoulder. Her hand clasped the back of my head, her fingers icy on my ear. I burrowed into her neck, my mouth to her skin, and I remembered another time, another place, an embrace which had felt like an ending, dragged away by an irresistible current down branching streams. All those little rivers, that had been crissing and crossing along the years, all without our knowing. In a gallery. An opera house. A garden in Provence. And none of them the end of it at all.
Héloïse pulled back, looked at me, stroked my face with her cold hands over and over. “Did you mean what you said?”
There was such wary gravity in her voice. I knew immediately what she was asking. My heart seized. “Yes,” I said. “Every word.”
She wound my arm through hers, trembling. We walked on. “I asked you once,” she said carefully, “whether you were free.”
It felt too solemn a moment to answer in haste. “I am,” I whispered.
Her arm tightened under my grip. We had reached the hidden turn of the lake, and came to a mutual halt. She took my hand, head lowered, staring at my fingers. “I am not,” she murmured. “Even now. And I have no way of knowing when, or if, I will be.” When her eyes lifted to mine, I saw every corner of her; her fierce, proud intelligence, her anger at the world, her thwarted sense of justice, her tenderness and passion. And also something else. Something new birthed and strange to her, staggering giddy on unfamiliar legs. I saw hope. She suddenly could not meet my gaze. “I cannot ask for you to wait for me.”
I grasped for her other hand, squeezing it tight. “Do not ask me anything,” I murmured. “Tell me what you would want.”
For a long moment, as we stood together on the lakeside, hands clasped, she considered. I did not rush her. I understood her hesitation. I had asked her for a promise; one of her own choosing. And her honour would have her choose carefully.
At last she raised her eyes to meet mine, decided. “To see you again,” she said. And then, with the smallest of nods, “And to see.”
My heart flooded over. I clutched her hands. “I would want that too,” I whispered.
I heard my name called across the park.
We pulled into one another. A kiss. Just one, soft and lingering and nowhere near enough. “Your aunt has my address,” I whispered. She stifled a gasp into my ear, protesting the horrible practicality of departure, of distance. I felt her fingers tighten in my hair, and at my waist. I stroked at her breast, smiling. “And you have my chemise.”
She laughed and sobbed at the same time. “I had nothing of you to take with me.” Her eyes were full of tears.
Nothing of me. I pulled her close, knowing that I was about to surrender something precious that she could not yet return. Not in good conscience. But someone must give the thread that the other will follow. And I was free.
“I love you, Héloïse.”
She looked stunned for a moment, overwhelmed. I tried to draw away from her but she held me fast. And she kissed me again, her breath jumping.
“Don’t look back,” she whispered. “Please. Not this time. Don’t look back.”
We walked to the driveway, arm in arm, across the lawns, we exchanged no further intimacies, no soft words. We dropped hands before we reached the path around the house, to the door, and the waiting carriage. Eugénie and Bérénice were there under the portico. I bid them farewell as best I could, grateful and afraid, both for their part in what had been and what was yet to come.
“To new memories,” the Countess said.
I nodded, unable to reply, and shook Bérénice’s hand most stoically, whilst she tried valiantly not to burst into tears.
At last, I faced Héloïse. She stood apart from the household, framed by the wilderness; shattering, devastating, holy. I would paint her like this. And her eyes would be all the colours of the sea.
“Goodbye,” I whispered, and had to smile to keep from crying.
One deep breath and she had mastered herself.
She said, “Goodbye.”
I did not look back. Not once. But when we had cleared the poplars of the drive down to the east gate and turned out onto the public avenue beyond, protected by the noise of the horses and the wheels, I did weep. I wept in agony, as if my heart unravelled on the road behind us, farther and farther, a slender bleeding thread of promise, knotted tight and holding, between her chest and mine.
Chapter 9: Paris
It took a year.
Thankfully, the time was busy. The capital seemed to absorb all the hours and energy I had to hurl at it. For every far flung commission I refused, Paris obliged with a more lucrative surrogate. For every provincial domestic piece, Paris demanded official portraiture, battle scenes, histories both heroic and mythic. The war was good for business, my father said. People suddenly wanted their memoirs written on canvas, ten feet high.
I had warned him on my return, much to his bemusement, that I no longer wished to travel much outside the city. And he had looked me over with a fond skepticism, and asked if it was the south or southerners which disagreed with me more.
One night, I told him.
Not in great detail. I did not think he would understand, if I told him everything. But I told him of a passionate friendship from the past. A tumultuous reunion and an uncertain future. He nodded along, his compassionate grey eyes reading me as easily as a primer. At the end of my narrative, he said, “Well, let’s see her then.” I asked him what he meant, and he tapped my head with his knuckles, as he did whenever I was within reach and being dense. “Well, I assume that you have painted her.”
I nearly cried, for of course, my likeness of her was gone. But I went to the store for him, found Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, and brought it out for his inspection. He looked it over with his teacher’s eye. He pointed to the background. “Brittany,” he said. I nodded. “I painted her mother, didn’t I?” I nodded again. He looked at me sympathetically, knew me entirely. “She’s pretty, then.”
That was when I cried in earnest, and my father put his arm around my shoulder, kissed the top of my head roughly and said, “I think that you need wine.”
Things were easier after that. Being in town for long periods, I found that my teaching practice flourished. If anything, demand was too high. I was having to keep a waiting list of keen young ladies and could, at long last, take on pupils according to merit rather than means. I was so busy, in fact, that my father eventually moved out of our old family rooms in the main studio, finding himself a smaller space. I commented that it was a good sign, that the business was expanding, but he scoffed. It was only so that he stood half a chance of being able to paint in peace, he said, away from all my fluttering cygnets.
As the months passed, he would occasionally meet my eye over a pipe and ask if I had heard anything from my blonde friend, and I would have to confess that I had not. He would never press me, or ask if I was at all concerned. I loved him for that.
I did receive a single letter, some three months after my return home. It was not from Héloïse, nor even from Eugénie, but from Bérénice, written in a beautiful ronde hand over four, cramped pages. It was a strange letter, full of the kind of bland trifles and intimacies one might expect from an eccentric relative, or worrisome parent. But I understood as I read that she must have feared its being opened by the wrong people. She detailed various outings that she had made around the city of Milan, a pain she was experiencing in her right side, how incomprehensible she found the Milanese, and how the heat and the food affected her dreadfully.
And then there were a few, brief lines about her cousin’s girl, with the trouble. How relieved she was to be back with her child. How things would take time to mend, but that the specialists were hopeful. And how she might be ready to travel again in the winter, should the weather remain mild. She signed off with the words,
In God’s hands, dearest, until mine can reach.
I must have read those words a thousand times, wearing out the paper with my eyes as the year faded.
My more observant pupils noticed a portrait taking shape in the corner of the workroom: a noble woman wearing dark clothes on a summer’s day.
“Is it hard,” one of my favourites asked one evening, as she helped me tidy after class, “to work from memory?”
“It depends,” I replied. “Often, I find that in painting, you create the memory, rather than the other way around.”
“So, she is not real?” Elisabeth looked so crestfallen that I had to laugh.
“She is the most stubbornly real person I have ever met,” I replied. “She is uncompromisingly real.”
This seemed to reassure her. “Good,” she said, her face blossoming with relief. I asked her why it mattered. She shrugged. “Because of how you look at her.”
And so, in late April, when I received a package marked as coming from the coaching inn outside Marseille, the significance barely registered. It was small and surprisingly heavy, and when I unwrapped its outermost layer, a note fell onto the table, inked on heavy paper. No return address and no signature. It read simply:
Original to follow.
For a moment or two I was emphatically annoyed. My day was due to be a busy one. I did not have time for cryptic messages from clients, clearly imagining I was so honoured by their custom that I would know who they were without the minor detail of a name. I ripped open the package in a temper.
And there she was.
The miniature, my miniature, of Héloïse. It had been reset into a plain silver frame with new, domed glass. And someone had restored the drawing. Not very professionally, it had to be admitted. But with care, and a loving attention to detail. It appeared they had cut away the burned sections with a razor, pasted what was salvaged onto new card stock. And then, they had painstakingly, methodically, drawn back in what had been lost to the flames. I smiled. They had matched the colours well. The line of the hair was almost perfect, the dress a decent enough attempt. The left eye was not exactly as I remembered, but it gave the resulting image a rather endearing, quizzical look; one that I had never painted, but certainly recognised.
As if she had been looking in a mirror. Wondering if she could.
Original to follow.
I have no idea how I got through that day. Or the next. Not well, clearly, because on the third day my father came to enquire as to whether I was quite myself. A mutual student had mentioned I looked pale and distracted. I showed him the picture and the note, and we drank and smoked in silence.
At last, in a small voice, I asked, “What should I do?”
He refilled his pipe. “Hope’s a funny wee animal,” he said. “You want it in your life, but too much fussing and it’ll cut you and bugger off.” He fixed me with a beady look. “Do your job. Fill your hours. Get in a few extras on market day. And we’ll see.” We smoked quietly before the studio fire.
“What are the numbers on the back?” he asked me at last. “Three. Nine. Five?”
I muttered, blushing, that I had no idea, maybe something to do with the framers. And he let the subject drift back into silence.
April was still venting itself against the high windows, rattling wind and rain. I loved sitting in the studio when the weather was bad, snug and cosy, with the smell of the paints, the slight chill from the far corners, and the grey evening light. It reminded me of being small, watching my father work, listening to the soft drum thud of his brushes on the canvas, losing track of time as he chatted away to us about this and that.
“Buy some new bedsheets.”
“What?” I uttered, incredulous.
“You heard me,” he said, feigning severity as I laughed. “You’re expecting a guest. Now is the time, my girl! You won’t regret it and you may just be grateful. But, there you are. I’ve said my piece.” We smoked a little while longer. “Does she travel alone?”
“I don’t know,” I confessed.
“No servants, or…?”
“Not that she would bring from Milan,” I said. Then, I spoke aloud the anxiety I had felt in my stomach for days. No. Months. “She may have her daughter with her.”
My father slowly lowered his pipe from his mouth. “Her daughter,” he repeated. “And how old is this daughter?”
I frowned, pretending to work it out. “Nearly eight, I think. Thereabouts.”
His smile was affectionate, though somewhat condescending. “And what do you know about eight year olds, my Little Calf?”
I wondered why it did not feel sadder, when he called me that. After all, it had been nearly twenty years. Perhaps, now that we had proved to the world I was his equal, he felt more comfortable with my also being his child. I did not call attention. I just enjoyed the feeling for a moment. Then, I shrugged. “Start them on charcoal,” I said, “and be sure they wear an apron.” We started chuckling together. “Don’t let them drink the turpentine,” I went on, and my father joined in as if reciting from an ancient text.
“And if they do…”
“… then keep them away from open flame.”
He laughed. “Sound advice!” he said, slapping his knee. “Was that one of mine?”
He shook his head, and finished his drink. “Sound, sensible advice.”
The weather was atrocious for a week. The mews entrance was a quagmire most mornings and Jeanne had the devil’s own job trying to keep the dirt from coming up the stairs and into the studio. She cleaned for my father before noon these days, and for me after lunch, so by the time she arrived, what with deliveries, and pupils coming and going, the entrance sometimes resembled a turnip field.
“You’d think it would discourage them,” she said, nodding at the studio full of young ladies, shaking the rain from their shoulders, the muck from their hems.
I beamed proudly at her. “I am that good,” I said.
She pushed my shoulder. She had known me since I was eleven years old. “Cheeky. I’ll get your water in first, all right?”
All this to say, that it had been a completely ordinary day, and was promising to be an equally unremarkable evening. We were about an hour into the still life exercise, and Marie Joséphine had lost concentration. She had muddled her petals together, as she always did. And, as she always did, she hoped I would not notice.
“Hold up your finger,” I said, with every ounce of my waning patience, “shut one eye, and count.”
“I did,” she protested.
“Well, do it again and count better,” I advised. “And maybe talk to your father about eyeglasses. Your father, mind. Not your mother.”
I knew her mother with passing familiarity. A handsome woman herself, she would sooner allow her daughter to die a thousand deaths in the Paris traffic than permit a pair of spectacles to grace the girl’s promising nostrils.
“Mademoiselle, this petal looks odd,” complained Marie Delphine. She sounded mystified, as if she were not entirely responsible for the oddness or otherwise of whatever graced her paper. I went to stand behind her.
“Odd or not,” I said, “it is correct. Keep going.”
“But it does not look like a rose petal at all.”
I pointed at the arrangement. “That is a rose petal. Look at it, trust what you are seeing, and draw.”
“May I trust what I am seeing, mademoiselle?” asked Marie Joséphine lightly.
“No, you may not,” I replied. The bell down in the mews sounded. “In fact, you, Marie Joséphine, may want to count again. Just to be safe.”
The weather was so atrocious that I could barely hear my pupils’ giggling over the rattle of the rain. Jeanne went to answer the door. Another order arriving, perhaps. Bringing in more mud. Poor woman. She had probably thought she was nearly finished for the day. From the hallway, I could hear the surprise in her tone. “Yes?”
“Lei è Marianne?”
The hairs on my neck stood alert. It was a small voice, yet somehow commanding. Somewhere in its cadence was a music that I recognised, that I felt I would recognise anywhere. I turned from my teaching, wandered, dazed to the head of the stairs.
A small girl stood on the doorstep below, hammered by rain. She wore a long travelling cloak of a dark material, had the hood raised over honey blonde hair. She was drenched through, but stood ramrod straight as she gazed up at Jeanne with enormous, skeptical eyes. Small, solemn face, dark lashes and dark brows framing those eyes. Those eyes which would be all the colours of the sea. My shout was involuntary.
Her blonde head turned. She saw me, standing on the landing, and suddenly grinned, delightedly. Toothily. And she turned to yell down the mews, so that her strong voice bounced victoriously over the cobbles, through the falling rain. “Mamma, l’ho trovata!”
I ran to the window overlooking the yard. And there, where I had looked for her a thousand times, where I had pictured her so strongly that I could no longer tell if what I saw now was real or the memory of my own imagining, there she was. Her face raised, finding mine at the window, blinking in the downpour. I could not think. I could not breathe. She was not hesitating. She was asking my permission. She was waiting.
“Jeanne,” I called, my voice wild. “Jeanne, show them up!”
And then, they were standing in the doorway of the studio. She was lowering her hood, her eyes hunting, locking into mine, before a wide room full of strangers. And we neither of us moved.
“È lei, mamma?” Theresa whispered. She seemed confused by our hesitation. “L’abbiamo trovata?”
Héloïse bent her head, whispered to her little girl, hugging her shoulders. “Sì, l’abbiamo trovata, cara. Now, remember, try your French if you can.” Another reassuring squeeze. And her eyes lifted again, and looked at me, holding back.
I went to her. Embraced her. Said her name. Could say nothing else for a moment. I held her. I just held her, and at last, I felt the damp from her clothing seep through into my bodice and remembered myself. “You… Look at you. You are soaked. Jeanne,” I said, my voice flustered, my hands at my waist. “These are my guests from Milan, Héloïse and her daughter Theresa. They are come to stay for… for a while. Could you heat some water?”
I had taken Héloïse’s forearms, resting mine on them. Careful, maybe too careful. Painfully aware of the room full of my pupils, just over my shoulder.
“We can come back later,” she was murmuring, her eyes searching mine.
“No!” I interrupted her, bewildered, shy of her. She was in my house. “No. We finish soon. I will be…” On the threshold of my life. “Let me take your cloaks. You must be freezing.” I was disrobing her before she gave a reply, her limbs slow.
“Shall I get some towels, mademoiselle?”
It was Elisabeth who had spoken. I looked back to the studio floor to see a collection of curious eyes peeping around easels, watching the scene unfold. But Elisabeth had risen from her seat, a look of barely disguised delight upon her face.
“Yes,” I said distantly. “Thank you. Do you know where they are?”
“There is a coaching inn,” Héloïse was saying to me, catching me, stilling me, asking without saying. “It would be no trouble. If, at present, you are not free.”
I looked at her directly. “No.” And then, perhaps because I had been a little forceful, I said, “Please. Stay.” I breathed. “Stay here.” I had taken her hand. “I am,” I said. “I am.”
“È questo uno studio?”
I felt the slightest pressure from her fingers, then she was away, looking to Theresa. “Yes, darling. It is Marianne’s studio. Where she works. Where she teaches. Come here. Let’s have your cloak off.”
“Ti ha insegnato a disegnare, mamma?”
“There. You were drenched. I told you. Thank you, Marianne.” I took both cloaks, hung them up before the studio fire, told my pupils to carry on without me for a moment. I listened to Héloïse chatting away to her child. “Say it in French, and I’ll tell you.”
“Did she teach you to draw?”
“That’s good. And, yes, she did teach me. A little. But more importantly, she taught me to persevere on my own. You are shivering, Theresa.”
“No am not.”
“There’s another fire in the kitchen, if you like,” I offered. “A much bigger one. And something warm to eat.” I recognised the fierce opposition in those eyes, the shy curiosity, the flame forged will. I said to her, “You might meet my cat.” And Theresa’s resistant face suddenly lit, its enthusiasm tempered only by an unspoken acknowledgement that she was really too old to be swayed by such trivial things as cats, but that she was willing to make an exception this once. Héloïse looked at me with a tired gratitude.
“Come,” she said, speaking to her child’s maturity. “You are hungry. You told me an hour ago.”
“Not very hungry, though. Only a little.”
“A little? You made so much fuss for being only a little hungry?”
I watched them go, Héloïse’s back straight, her hands held down in front of her legs, shepherding her child forward by the flats of her shoulders, murmuring in a low sing song as they went. “Scoot. Scoot. Scoot.”
I could not have imagined.
I could not have foreseen the ache. Or the fear. Or how either could be beautiful.
Elisabeth was at my elbow, handing me the towels before I had time to look away. She whispered to me, her voice so enraptured that she could barely keep it down, “That’s her, isn’t it?”
I considered her excited expression dispassionately.
If you knew, I thought, if your parents ever suspected, you would never be allowed to return here. Not you nor any of your classmates could ever bear association with me. It would not matter how good a teacher I was, or how discreetly we conducted ourselves, or how fine a reputation was carried by my father’s name. You would all leave without a backward glance, and never mention me without a sordid thrill, the tingle of sly gossip behind open fans. For the good opinion of polite society.
Must we mind the opinion of such people? I asked myself. We must.
Mind, but not obey.
For, in this moment, Elisabeth looked at me with such joy, as if she were my better angel, a reflection of my honest self, showing my stumbling heart its true direction. I wondered suddenly if she had ever been in love.
“Thank you,” I said, taking the towels from her. “You have a few minutes more. Try to make an end.”
I walked slowly down the corridor into the private apartment. I could hear Theresa’s voice from outside the kitchen, already blurred with tiredness. “Non c’è nessuna gatta, mamma.”
“No. Well. Perhaps we will meet her tomorrow.”
Jeanne came bustling out into the corridor and intercepted me. “They’re wanting to get dry,” she said. “I got the spare mattress out to air. Stew’s ready if they’re hungry and their trunk is in your room for now.”
I thanked her, hugging the towels close to me, like plate armour.
“How long are they staying?”
My mouth was dry, hanging open stupidly. And I shook my head before replying. “I do not know.”
Even when Jeanne had bustled off, I hung back, shying from the threshold of my own kitchen, wondering whether I would be welcome there. When I strode around the door, Theresa was standing like a starfish before the glowing fire in her damp chemise, her ratty blonde hair down to her shoulders. Héloïse was carefully hanging her daughter’s dress up to dry on the fire guard. Black, for mourning; white, for freedom. They were chatting about the book they had been reading in the coach, mixing Italian and French, Héloïse patient and precise, Theresa wild and inventive. She flexed her fingers into the warmth, as if to make herself as large as possible, claiming the air.
“Héloïse?” I whispered.
Her expression was drained, her face pale. She came over to me in long strides, holding out her arms for the towels. She was still in her wet things, and looked, in this light, thinner than I remembered her. She stood very close to me. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted so badly to kiss her. But Theresa was watching curiously, and I did not know.
“Do you have everything?” I asked, still in whispers.
“Yes.” She was looking at my hands where my knuckles touched hers, her brows tightly drawn.
“Give me twenty minutes,” I said. “I am so sorry.”
“Do not apologise.” She looked at me with absolute sincerity, her eyes wearier than I had ever seen them. “Please.” She took my fingers in hers, as if uncertain of their reality. “Marianne, you have no idea.”
On a sudden impulse, I pulled her to me by the towels, wrapped my arm around her shoulder and held her tight. I pressed my face close in to her neck for an instant and breathed her in. “I am so glad,” I whispered vehemently. “So glad.” She managed a smile, but that too seemed washed out, as if she stood, battered on a beach, waiting for the next wave to swamp her. I squeezed her arm.
“Hai tutto il necessario, Theresa?” I called to the figure spread before the fire.
She turned to look at me with that same guarded curiosity, her eyes flicking to her mother to check that she was allowed to reply. “Sì, grazie, signora,” she said, nodding like a Duchess.
“Marianne,” I encouraged. “Puoi chiamarmi Marianne. Se vuoi. Hai già trovato la mia gatta?” I asked. “Have you found my cat, yet?”
She shook her head. “No. She is… cacciando, mamma?”
“Hunting,” Héloïse said, watching our interaction with a guarded interest.
“She is hunting, maybe?”
I had to laugh, picturing the animal in question. “She is likely asleep somewhere warm,” I said. “She hunts at night. But she will come back, I promise. Tornerà.”
Theresa seemed satisfied, and turned her attention back to the fire. “Lei caccia di notte!” she said under her breath, making herself enormous, stretching belly first towards the flames. “Come una tigre nelle giungle dell’India!” Héloïse laughed softly, her eyes on her stubbornly energetic child.
“What is tomorrow, Theresa?” she asked.
“All French day,” came the reluctant reply.
She smiled as she said it, and her face seemed just a little brighter. “Get dry,” I said to her. “Eat something. Make yourselves comfortable. Please. And if it is all too much,” I said, “my bedroom is across the corridor.”
At that, and only very subtly, her eyes twinkled. “I will wait for you,” she said.
I sent my pupils home promptly. Usually there were stragglers, wanting to help pack up, wanting to interrogate me, or ingratiate themselves. On the whole I did little to dissuade them, but that evening I made it quite plain that I had nothing left to give. Elisabeth smiled encouragingly as the last of her fellows ducked out into the rain and the waiting carriages.
“She came all the way from Milan,” she said.
“Yes,” I replied, noting that she had not asked a question. That her words had sounded more like a reminder; like reassurance. “She did.”
She nodded at me approvingly, as if we were old friends. “Good night, mademoiselle.” She might have said, ‘Good luck’.
I could hear no chatter from the kitchen, as I returned. There was Theresa, flopped over the table, defeated by sleep in the warm light of the fire. She must have simply put her head down as she finished eating and nodded off. Her pale arms were crossed, her blonde head resting on them. One of the towels was draped over her little shoulders like a cape, and it rose and fell steadily. Héloïse, too, was sleeping, stripped to her chemise, curled diagonal in the padded armchair where my mother used to do her darning, where the cat had crept in and given birth. One hand framed her face, rounded like a comb.
And I was lost. Absolutely lost in her. Standing in the doorway of my childhood’s temple, granted a fleeting vision of the future. I was transfixed by it, awed by it, struck dumb like the ancient prophets. But the moments passed, and the vision did not fade. And slowly, the miracle becomes practical. One shields it from the sun, keeps it from cold, and answers other hungers. I tiptoed over to the stew pot, ladled myself some dinner, and took the plate out into the corridor to eat.
What do you know about eight year olds, my Little Calf?
I sat on the hall chair, my supper balanced on my knees, like an excitable child dismissed from proper company. Sent out into the quiet to think carefully about how grown folk behave. I listened to the rain on the studio roof. And considered. What did I know about eight year olds? Other than they were people. Real and whole. Dignified and deserving and tragic. And that one slept in my kitchen at this moment, who had travelled so far, and lost so much. And that I did not know her. And that these things take time.
The cat sauntered by me, flicking her tail against my skirts with an arch impertinence, the greeting of an equal.
“Someone wants to meet you,” I told her, “if you would be so good.”
I must have been sitting there for an hour, when Héloïse called out for me, her voice drowsy. “Yes.” I went to her. “Yes.”
She had not moved. Her eyes had opened, her mouth drawing itself into a sleepy smile as she saw me appear in the doorway. “You were avoiding us,” she murmured.
I paused, my heart overfull. “You both looked so peaceful,” I told her.
She sat up slowly, stiffly, and gave me a vulnerable look. And then, I watched as she put her head into her hands, her elbows on her knees. It was so uncharacteristic a gesture from her, that I found I could not respond. There was another whole year of her that I did not know.
She spoke into her fingers, her voice terribly dry. “I thought we might have scared you off,” she said.
I went to her softly, knelt up on the floor by her bare feet, raising my eyes to mirror hers. I drew her fingers away from her face as gently as I could, weaving them through my own. And I laughed, finding that I was unable to meet her gaze, knowing there was nothing to be gained from pretence, for the matter that we discussed was serious and sacred.
“I am terrified,” I confessed.
She gripped my hands, her expression uncertain. “I resolved,” she said at last, “on the way here. And I have to tell you now, before…” She shook her head, as if the words were stubbornly clinging on inside. “I want you to be a choice I make,” she said at last, “when I am free to choose. And I want to be a choice that you make. I want us to be a choice that you make, when you feel under no obligation.”
I thought about protesting. That I felt in no way obliged. That I wanted her here with me. Desperately. That I wanted both of them. But such protestations would have been passionate, not rational. We were no longer negotiating the desires of us two, but planning for the good of us three. “I understand.”
“Then you know we should not stay,” she said unhappily, drawing my hands into her waist. “At least, we should stay only until I can make other arrangements for lodgings.”
“I will help you make enquiries in the morning,” I said quickly, backing away, trying to hide the crippling disappointment in my chest. But she reached for me, pulled me into her, dropped her legs either side of mine where I knelt.
“We will find our way together,” she said, with an absolute certainty. And then, in a voice that was suddenly quick and quiet, “Can we be somewhere nearby?” she asked, her breathing fast. “I will want to see you, Marianne.” Her fingers pushing into my hair. “I will want to see you all the time.”
We kissed one another. As if our love were a book we had grudgingly set aside, and now, in taking it back up again, we found we had to retrace the last few paragraphs, reestablish ourselves in the chapter before we could move on. Her hand tightened in my hair, and I pressed into her, looping my arm around her back, tugging her forward, her lap into my stomach, my body waking to her, rousing itself, overwhelmed in a fog of her. It was only when I moaned unconsciously, that she reluctantly dragged her mouth away from mine, dodging me gently as I chased. She met my eyes with a look of frustration and regret, even as her fingers gripped me harder, closer. She glanced around my shoulder, to where Theresa still dozed.
I turned in her arms, sat heavily on the floor at her feet, reached up blindly for her wrists as she encircled me.
“Exhausted,” she murmured.
“When did you start this morning?”
She groaned, kissed my ear. “Five o’clock. And she talked for most of the day. She wants to do some drawing tomorrow, if you please.”
“She is enchanting.”
“She’s a beautiful menace.”
“We could put her in my bed,” I offered, “before she’s too deep.”
Héloïse looked at me, and then, with her usual frankness asked, “And where will we go?”
I felt myself blush. “There is a spare mattress,” I whispered. “We could put it in here. Or I could. If you were tired, and wanted a proper bed. You could go in with Theresa. Whichever you prefer.”
She watched me trying to brave out my discomfort, sitting on the floor, my skirts rumpled around my knees. I think she may even have found it funny. When at last I had embarrassed myself into silence, she sighed once, slowly, and said, “I did not come all this way to sleep in your bed, if you are not going to sleep with me.”
I turned my head to look up into her face. She was gazing at me, as if I were the sweetest idiot. “You want to sleep with me?” I asked, disbelieving, delighted, rubbing my head back into her belly, my shoulders against her thigh.
She buried her face in my neck. “Yes,” she whispered, her voice catching. “Yes. But not here.”
I turned into her, inhaling the scent of her body. I kissed the inside of her elbow, where the skin was so delicate it was almost transparent. I asked shyly, “Where shall we go?”
Her eyes were alight. She bit her lip, and said, “Your studio.” And suddenly I was hit with the thrilling certainty that this was something that she wanted, something which had stirred her, which she had imagined. I nodded slowly.
“I’ll bring the mattress through,” I said.
“I’ll put her to bed.”
The mattress was heavy, but I managed to wrestle it on my own, my heart already pounding. I laid it down in front of the studio hearth, under the high windows, where the rain still pattered and trickled, casting the shadows of a thousand little rivers onto the bed, flowing in black and grey. By the time I returned with new sheets, I found the fire stoked, a carafe of wine and two glasses on the floor, and Héloïse. She was standing in the corner like a calm spirit, wrapped in a painting smock, examining her new portrait.
She was silent for a moment, though I know she must have seen me enter. At last, she spoke in a low voice. “Is that,” she asked me slowly, “how I looked, on that day?”
“To me,” I answered. “She is made of my memory. And that is how I remember you.”
She looked genuinely surprised. “Hopeful?” she asked.
“It did take a long time,” she said softly, her eyes still exploring the canvas. “They fought us at every step. But they settled a lump sum on Theresa.” Her eyes were unwavering. “We never have to see any of them again. We can live on the interest until she is of age.”
I knelt down with the sheets, and pillows. “And then?” I prompted.
She smiled softly, proudly. “Then, she will be independent. She will be free to choose.”
In that moment, she was more beautiful than I had ever known her. “And what will you do?”
Her eyes flicked up to me, the smile lingering on her lips. “I want to make myself useful.” She did not elaborate, and I did not push. Not yet. A future with her in it still seemed insubstantial and strange to me, as if with too much thinking, it could burst apart. “My aunt and Bérénice send you their best wishes, by the way,” she went on. “They travelled with us. As far as Marseille.”
I laughed. “Good for them.”
Her eyes gleamed from the dark corner. “And you?” For the first time since she had arrived, she did not look tired at all.
“I have been very busy. Busier than ever. We’re flourishing.”
“And even so, you painted me,” she said, her eyes soft.
“It is good to know you are a woman of your word.”
“I try to be,” I replied. “I find it is a question of making the right promises.”
She came to me, to help me with the sheet, kneeling opposite me, raising and folding neatly, and tucking under the mattress. “You have taken your time with me,” she said. “Many months.”
“My client is very patient,” I said.
She laughed quietly. “Oh, I must contradict you there.”
Her skin in the firelight was so lovely, I could barely take my eyes off her, barely hold back from her. But we were civilised women, and first we would make the bed.
“But, it has been nearly a year,” she went on, glancing at me from under those dark brows. “Perhaps, in that time, you have come to prefer her.” I did not respond, thinking instead of her collarbone, where it joined the points of her shoulders, how it would feel under my lips, on my tongue. “Your memory of me.”
I stilled. She was teasing, but my heart had snagged on something. A remembrance of whispers in the dark. Ecstatic and desperate. Don’t hate me. I stood, unsteadily, arranged the pillows. But I’m here. Please. Don’t hate me. She had noticed my silence. She came to stand near me in the glow of the fire, so close that I could feel the heat radiating from her clothes, from her skin. The smock hung loose, and I recognised the chemise beneath.
I raised my eyes to her. “A memory can be easier to love,” I said. “A person has to love you back.”
“I do,” she said. Without hesitation.
We kissed. And this time, our kiss was a pressure, and a rhythm, and a wave. And the wave surged over distant cliffs, drawing down in its torrent all the years, all the distance, all the careful memorials and edifices that I had ever made to her, or she to me. The splinters flowed around us as we held one another, pricking at our skin, making us flinch and cry out. And the flood was swollen with all the sorry shadows of the living things we could not save, borne away from us into the dark. And I understood, kissing her then, to the sound of rain and fire, that the lover is not an artist, but a swimmer, crashing through the water after the prow of a boat, reaching out, taking hold, to choose with every desperate breath to love, and love, and love.
Sometime later, we drank the wine, propped up on elbows and over each other, speaking in low voices, learning one another again, slowly, carefully, thoroughly. And later still, we slept, under a blanket of limbs and rain shadows, the fire winking out its last beside us, into ember and ash.
I woke to the sound of padding feet. Héloïse was wrapped around me like a shawl, so there was only one person it could be. I stayed very still. There had been a chill in the night, thank goodness, and we had pulled our chemises back on, and the blankets up to our necks.
“Good morning,” said a confident voice.
I heard Héloïse groan slightly.
“Good morning, Theresa.” Her reply was tired, but natural, careful to betray no shame or surprise. I felt her arm squeeze me under the ribs for a moment and then we raised our heads together.
Theresa was standing in the doorway, grinning triumphantly, carrying a very patient cat by the armpits.
“Who is this, Marianne?” she asked, her eyes bright.
“That is Sesto,” I said softly.
Theresa frowned. “But she is a girl,” she noted accurately.
“Sesto is always played by a girl,” I replied.
The child nodded, taking for granted the correctness of the answer she did not yet understand. “She found me,” Theresa explained. “She was asleep next to me when I woke up.”
“I told you she likes warm places.”
Theresa puffed up, proud of herself, proud of her French. But then, the weight and inherent dignity of the cat was suddenly too much for her to bear, and she carefully placed the animal on the floor. As she did so, she asked her mother sheepishly, “Where do I make water?”
“Oh.” Héloïse sat up immediately, obeying the clarion call of motherhood. “Yes. Let’s go and find it, darling.”
“It’s in the cabinet in the corner,” I murmured, watching as she wrapped the smock around herself. “Far left.”
“Thank you,” she breathed, touching my shoulder.
As they walked out together, I heard Theresa whisper, “That is not your nightdress, mamma.”
“My clothes are all in your room,” Héloïse answered. “And we didn’t want to wake you.”
I lay back down, my arms above my head, and sighed, and stretched, tired and tender and happy. Profoundly happy. I saw the cat, sitting neatly by my wrists, her tail coiled around her paws, considering my contented smile with her narrowed yellow eyes. “Oh, really?” she seemed to be saying. “Is that so?”
“Well, you’re a fine one to judge,” I grumbled, rolling off the mattress and getting up.
I lit the fire in the studio, lazily coaxed it into a healthy blaze while Sesto explored our vacated bed, concluded that it was now her bed, and set about making the necessary alterations. I retreated to the kitchen to make some coffee and, as the water boiled, I found myself going and emptying the chamber pot, cleaning it, and to my surprise, not minding in the least. I washed at my nightstand, made my bed, Theresa’s bed, and called into the studio to ask if they wanted anything.
They were setting up one of the drawing donkeys together, Héloïse vigilant but hanging back, letting her little girl see if she could unfold it on her own without trapping her fingers. The operation complete, Theresa swept away to find a good piece of paper. And I was left staring at Héloïse, standing in my studio, in the light of a Paris morning. And she was gazing back at me. And there was no reason not to. I strode over the floor in my bare feet, watching her smile spread wide with anticipation, and I took her by the waist and kissed her, unhurriedly, lightly, on the corners of her eyes, where they crinkled into her temples, and I kissed her on her temples where her hair was so soft, darkening to a mousy brown. And she hummed, and held my shoulders, and gripped me tight, releasing me slowly as her daughter turned at the soft sound of our laughter.
“Mamma, dov’è il carboncino?” she asked.
Héloïse mouthed to me. “Coffee.”
I returned with the tray to the sound of Héloïse’s voice.
“You must sit so that you can look,” she was saying, “without moving your head.”
“I am too short,” Theresa replied.
“Angle the donkey a bit more, then.”
I heard the furniture being dragged as I entered the room, watching where I stepped in my bare feet.
“Now, can you see me?”
I looked up. Héloïse was sitting on the life model chair, before the blue and white curtains. Her painting smock was wrapped easily about her body, her hands crossed in her lap. Theresa sat before her, frowning at a blank piece of paper. I set the tray down on the floor beside the mattress, in the warm glow of the fire, watching them both.
“How do I begin?”
“With my shape,” Héloïse told her. “My outline.”
I poured a cup of the coffee, held it for a moment, not wanting to move. I could not tell if she had seen me yet, and I did not want them to stop.
“Don’t go too fast.”
Her eyes flicked over to me, and her face spread into a happy smile. She beckoned me. Softly, I walked over, gave her the cup, but she transferred it quickly to her other hand, and reached again for my fingers. She held them for a moment, trying not to move her head, squeezed them once.
“Mamma! Hold still.”
“How much of me are you drawing?” she asked, grinning as I ducked away guiltily.
“Down to your middle.”
“Very well. But I shall drink my coffee, so look carefully at how my arms are placed. My hands.”
I walked away, to the fire, and the warmth of our bed. I took up my cup, drank a mouthful and lay down next to Sesto, my head propped on my fist. I gazed at Héloïse. And she looked back at me.
“Mamma, you are smiling.”
“I am sorry.”
“Stop it. Smiles are too difficult.”
And the weather in the skies overhead picked up, and the rain blew in, clattering against the windows. The fire crackled behind me, and the cat was purring like the rolling of distant thunder. There was nowhere to be, and nothing to do for hours. And these things take time. But we would find our way together, if we had to carve it out with our teeth. I drank my coffee and gazed at Héloïse. And she looked back at me.
And neither of us could help it if we tried.