Arthur Roquebrune sat at the kitchen table quietly stirring a cup of warm milk, the raw sugar granules at the bottom, grinding before the spoon like dirt in the escapement of a fine clock.
A memory of his Father came to him. His Father sitting at the old homestead's long golden pine kitchen table, stirring his morning coffee, and then tapping the spoon on the rim like a call to order. So many mornings ago. So many coffees. So many spoons. He gently withdrew the spoon and looked down at the swirling foamy milk and thought of distant galaxies and how far back in time they were, distant stars and stellar gases perceptibly reducing his sense of reality, making him feel like he was hovering just above the chair, the house around him held together by a seemingly haphazard combination of forces, everything so conditional and temporal. The thought of his dead parents now being part of this universe or universes, energy, vapour, dust, spirit, brought him back to reality. There was a weight to sorrow, a weariness in the fundamental memory of family.
Getting up, he carried his milk to the kitchen door, paused to look at the clock which read 1:23 a. m., and then turned out the light and made his way down the hall to his study. Sitting in the large Wingback chair in front of his desk, he sipped his milk and imagined himself behind the desk, trying to imagine what Thérèse would see if she were sitting here this morning? A foolish man? A man caught up in a professional request he should have quietly shelved? A guilty man for introducing a young woman to possible danger? He shook his head at his imaginary self.
His mind went over the events of the evening. His driving down to the office and dealing with the alarm system; his search for the key in his desk for Jerome's apartment, then the decision to go to the locked vault to look at the files of David Ashemore with the thought that he should dispose of them without a discussion with Wormwood or Verdigris, and then finding nothing but a clean metal shelf gleaming dully in the overhead light where Ashemore's files should have been. How he had searched, with a mounting sense of possible danger, as if someone might still be in the building, but finding nothing. Ashemore's boxes and files were gone. Even the dust that must have surrounded them on the shelf had been wiped away. He had almost thought it all a dream.
There must be a reason for this he thought. Ashemore has been dead a year. Why the sudden interest and actions taken? A change of personnel perhaps? A command to clean up the previous mess, deal with the loose ends and close the file once and for all? Write David Ashemore off for good, cleanly with no repercussions? Mr. Roquebrune had not revealed any of the Ashemore story to his wife, a case which had turned into a misfortune of cascading importunities. His profession had already occupied too much of their possible time together, all those six and seven day weeks. The long hours. They added up to years. Years.
He had driven home nervously looking in the rear view mirror for signs of being followed, but only noticed the receding darkness interspersed with splashes of light from the street lamps overhead.
His wife had accompanied him back to Jerome's rented space behind their house, and together, like the aged sleuths Poirot and Miss Marple, they had begun to investigate. Little was revealed except that Jerome was fairly neat and tidy, was working on what looked to be studies of an old Renaissance portrait of a lovely woman, and that he was possibly reading an oddly titled book of poetry called Alacrity and Karma on a Yacht off Palmyra by someone called P. K. Loveridge. Everything had seemed in order. Mrs. Roquebrune, however, discovered that Jerome's answering machine had reached its capacity for messages. She pushed the play button and they listened to a string of automated messages, contests for cruises, a message from his dentist, one from someone called Pascal Tessier concerning a sale of a painting, and long mysterious silent messages in between them all, as if silence was a message in itself. Mr. Roqubrune wondered if Thérèse had been calling just to listen to his voice on the machine and wait to see if he picked up. As they had approached the door to leave, Mrs. Roquebrune had noticed a business card on the floor beneath a coat rack, a business card for Jonathan Landgrave, of Landgrave & Landgrave, Notaries. Arthur had tuned it over to see “the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi by Agnolo Bronzino” written on the back in a bold script. His wife had asked him if he knew the notaries. He knew of them he told her. An excellent firm.
They had walked back to their home each imagining differing scenarios. A missing painting? A request for a forgery? A possible death of a painter? Approaching the back door steps, they had both imagined a drawing room crowded with an assemblage of shady characters, one of them guilty, their imaginations fuelled by the British mystery series they would watch on Sunday evenings, their one television indulgence.
It had been with uneasiness that he had dialled the long-distance number for Thérèse in Bergen, his guilt echoed with each dissonant tone in his ear, his index finger pressing down harder and harder as he went through the numbers, the sounds assaulting his ear like the self punishment of a penitent. She had answered almost immediately and Arthur had resigned himself to supposition and conjecture. No, Jerome had not been at home, but all was in order. He must be out for the evening he had said. Nothing was amiss he had assured her. He would phone her tomorrow with further information concerning Jerome and the Ashmore case. He had tried to reassure her there was no danger, but, all the while, had been indecisive whether to reveal to her that the files had disappeared from Wormwood & Verdigris. Would it make her feel safer to know, or the reverse? Since it was late, he had decided to leave it till tomorrow.
He would phone Jonathan Landgrave in the morning after checking to see if Jerome was at home. Then, the phone call to Thérèse.
What would a relatively poor painter be doing with the business card of a specialist in hypothecary and real estate law he wondered? Landgrave was involved in many large projects involving condominium and commercial developments, and had created a firm with his brother that had prospered even in the hard times. He fingered the card, turning it over in his left hand like a detective with a single clue. A portrait by Bronzino of Lucrezia Panciatichi?
He got up and went around to sit at his desk and pulled out a file from the lower drawer, a file that he turned to when faced with troubled thoughts. His pastime was translating poetry, and before him was Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, and Paul Valéry's Le Cimetière Marin to which he was giving his attention of late. Translating one into French and the other into English provided an outlet for his creative talents and allowed him to forget the day.
He looked upon the next stanza of the Valéry poem to translate, and read it with faint hope.
Temple du Temps, qu'un seul soupir résume,
A ce point pur je monte et m'accoutume,
Tout entouré de mon regard marin;
Et comme aux dieux mon offrande suprême,
La scintillation sereine sème
Sur l'altitude un dédain souverain.
As he sharpened a pencil, he consoled himself that the sun was rising in Bergen, a fresh day with a renewed bustle of citizens and the safety of light.
© ralph patrick mackay