Friday, March 15, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Thirty-Six

Thaddeus had quietly escorted Jerome along corridors and down staircases to what Thaddeus had called the 'heart of the home,' the public rooms. Other than that, Thaddeus had not been very conversant. When Jerome had asked if his host was a friendly man, Thaddeus had given him a sidelong smile and patted Jerome's shoulder. Having a sense of Thaddeus's character, he interpreted this gesture as a positive response, or at least, one that was somewhat reassuring.

In the large hallway at the foot of the stairs, Jerome had noticed a beautiful and very old mahogany Longcase clock, the hands pointing to six o'clock, and this had given him a sense of adjustment to the day.

“Jerome, Jerome, Jerome, what have you gotten yourself into?” he thought to himself, standing in the large drawing-room staring at the fireplace, the dry maple wood in its hearth crackling and seething, its colourful flames, reds, oranges and flickers of white drawn up by the draft, easing him into a meditative state and releasing memories of childhood. He was back in his Grandparent's house in Outremont, their cat, Pascal, basking in the heat before the fireplace, while he lay curled around him mesmerized by the hypnotic beauty of the flames. Such an ancient sight and so rarely captured in paint he thought.

Sitting down on a tapestry covered chair near the fireplace, the warmth of the fire radiating through his jeans and cotton shirt, he felt, all of a sudden, under dressed; he imagined a formal dinner with guests in dark suits and dresses, the looks, the murmurs, the glances, the condescending remarks. 'I believe he's an artist,' 'What did you say, an anarchist?' His neck, stiff with a touch of social anxiety, cracked as he stretched it sideways. This seemed to brighten his eyes and he lay his head back and looked at the oil painting over the fireplace. He estimated it to be approximately five feet by seven, an English bucolic landscape, probably early nineteenth century. The colouration was rich. The varnish less so. Do we all darken with age he wondered? Looking about he noticed two small watercolours in a corner above a small writing desk. He got up and walked over to have a closer look and as he bent down to look at the signatures, he heard the double doors at the far end of the room open.

“Copley Fielding, early paintings of the Lake District.”

Jerome straightened himself as successive waves of surprise washed over him; the initial one being the unannounced arrival of what he took to be his host, the second being the name of the water colourist thrown across the room like a ball for him to catch, and lastly the physical appearance of the man who approached him across the large pastel coloured carpet, an appearance that failed to fit any of Jerome's preconceptions.

The man's pale green crew-neck cashmere sweater was tucked into his dark green trousers; a brown leather belt echoed the supple brown leather loafers, all expensive but casual and unassuming. His sinewy physique was revealed beneath the close fitting sweater, and in the lightly pushed up sleeves showing his powerful yet slim forearms. But it was his face that captivated Jerome. A face he would have followed in a crowd. There was vigour and physical strength to be read in its lines, both unique and intriguing. The high cheek bones and the sharp nose produced bold contrary lines leading to a series of parentheses around the large mouth and down to the strong chin, the green eyes flashing with intelligence and energy, all under a head of light brown hair, parted off center, slightly long with natural waves, the boyish forelock still full and lively. The man stood about five foot ten and though Jerome felt he must be in his late fifties, he carried himself like a man twenty years younger.

Jerome had stood before the paintings speechless as the man approached.

“He was a student of Varley,” the man said, his voice a raspy dark nuance of vowels. “Do you know their work?”

“I've heard of their names, but I'm not familiar with their work,” Jerome said. “He captures light very well in such a difficult medium.” He couldn't stop looking at the man who stood beside him gazing lovingly at his Copley Fieldings. Jerome followed in his mind's eye as he captured the man's features with imaginary sweeps of his soft pencil, precursors to what Jerome hoped would be a realization.

“Declan,” the man said offering his hand and his name. “So pleased you could stay for supper. I hear your initial sketches have been successful.”

Jerome shook his hand, feeling the man's long fingers enfolding his hand in a brief yet strong clasp. “I've a number of Varley's in my study,” the man said, turning back towards the fireplace. “Perhaps after dinner we'll have a look. Extraordinary families, the Varleys and the Fieldings, so many of them were painters.”

Jerome returned to his chair and watched as Declan went to the fireplace and began to poke and jostle the fire like a knight challenging a dragon with a sword. “I hope your room is satisfactory?” he said turning around with the end of the poker glowing with heat.

“Yes, thank you,” Jerome said, clearing his throat of nervous tension. “Lovely tapestries.”

“Good, good, ” he said before walking over to an old high backed settee. “It's a quiet part of the house,” the man added somewhat mysteriously. He reached out to a bowl of mixed nuts on a side table and cracked a walnut in his hand. “I remember telling an old associate of mine that I had a few Varleys and he assumed they were by the Group of Seven painter, Frederick Varley and not the lesser known English painter John Varley. I indulged his presumption. What else could one do?” he added with a wide smile before popping pieces of walnut into his large mouth with its fine uneven teeth.

Jerome nodded to the sound of his crunching. “Do you like modern art?”

The man considered his question for a moment. “We have numerous residences, Jerome. Our city homes and our winter retreats tend to have our modern art. But not in this house, no, I wanted it to be old-fashioned and rather,” he paused looking around him, “timeless.” He seemed lost for a moment, gazing up at the painting over the fireplace. “I find these surroundings very comforting. And what about you, have modern styles ever captivated your eye?”

“Some modern art certainly, but I've never been very comfortable producing it.”

“So,” he said, eyeing Jerome as if he were a visual puzzle, “you have the talents and knowledge of an old master, and yet you struggle to make a living. Meanwhile, there are pundits with paint cans who make veritable stacks of currency. Yes, Jerome, we live in a world that my daughter refers to as a 'rave' new world.”

Jerome laughed lightly,  “I have a friend who's a jazz musician. He tells me he has hundreds of standards in his head, all to be embellished with his improvisational techniques, and as he struggles with large instruments travelling about, he sometimes thinks of the Dj's with their flash drives who zip around the world making those 'stacks of currency' you mentioned.”

“A 'rave' world indeed,” the man said, brushing his hands of walnut fragments. “Did you ever consider sculpture?”

Jerome, looking deep into the embers of the fire, thought about the question. “I think it was Michelangelo who said painting was a liberal art, and sculpture was a servile art. Painting suits my character better. I can sit calmly and observe my subject and daub away, but sculpture, no sculpture is a physically demanding pursuit. Chipping away with hammer and chisel, polishing down. Dusty, sweaty work.” He took a sip of his Sherry. “And it requires space and can be expensive, the stone, the need for heavy machinery to move it, bronze casting and all that business. I can see the seductive nature of working with clay, terracotta, or marble but it's just not for me.”

“Where did you study?” Declan asked.

“I did a degree in fine arts at Concordia University, but I had started young, and had mentors if you will. Then a good deal of travel to Europe where I copied old masters and took various courses.”

“Ah, an alumni. I too attended the University but at the time it was known as Sir George Williams. I was accepted at McGill but I gave it a pass. Will you join me in an apéritif? I have a fresh bottle of dry Sherry that's asking to be opened.”

“Certainly, yes, thank you.”

Jerome watched Declan walk over to a Birdseye maple cabinet and open it to reveal a small display of bottles and glasses. Declan poured a measure of amber liquid, Amontillado, into two tulip shaped glasses and came back to the fireplace, handing one to Jerome.

“Here's to a good dinner,” he said. “I hope you're not vegetarian. We've a fine private chef, originally from Shropshire, he's a magician with foie gras, morels, truffles, pheasant, squabs, quail and venison.” Declan sipped his Sherry looking over the glass at Jerome for a reaction. “I believe the menu tonight will include squabs stuffed with foie gras and then roast venison.”

Jerome tried to control a slight shiver as he sipped his Sherry. “Well, there's always a first time.”

“Good, good. First experiences can be memorable, but if it is your first time eating game, go easy, it can be rather rich. We can always send up a plate of sandwiches later if necessary.” Declan placed his glass down and crossed his legs and put his hands behind his head in a luxuriant pose. “I was out hunting in the fog today, such an odd stillness in the forest. I imagine the night will be a dark one, a half moon fit only for owls." He looked up at the painting over the fireplace and closed his eyes briefly as if tired. "The fog was a handicap for the small game today, but I managed a few ducks. Good exercise for Beaumont and myself—my black Labrador retriever. Yes, the smell of wood smoke and organic decay.” He paused as if he were imagining himself out in the forest, the fluttering of wings overhead. “The scent of autumn is like perfume to a hunting man.”

“I've never hunted," Jerome said with a sense of oblique resistance. "I don't know if I could.” 

Declan looked at him with a compassionate eye. “At your age, I too had never hunted.” He ran his right hand through his thick hair remembering the past. “Yes, I was still deep in the forest of stocks, bonds, options, derivatives and futures. Amidst the shadows and shades of higher finance. Like you, I found my area of ability when young, though my colour palette was a mix of numbers, facts and quick analysis for my creations.” Getting up, he went over to the small stack of carefully chosen wood and placed a quarter log on the fire defying it to burn him so slowly did he lay it upon the rising flames. Standing with his back to the mantel, his hands in his pockets, he looked around the room with a satisfaction that comes with achievement. “My roots are in earthy poverty. My Father, a mechanical minded man, came back from the war suffering what we today call post traumatic stress, but then it was called life, get over it. He managed to become a tool and die man and raise a family in Point St. Charles. But money was a rare commodity in our house. He drank away a lot of his earnings and my poor Mother did her best with what she had. My life is one of those hackneyed rags to riches stories Jerome. As a kid I sold newspapers, delivered for a drugstore on a bicycle, worked in restaurants, shovelled snow, whatever to make money. I was smart, managed to get through school and pay my way through University.”

Jerome sat there sipping his Amontillado, wondering if his mild reference to hunting had truly prompted such a revelation. He was fascinated, the face of Declan taking on for him all the lines of experience and struggle, the filigrees of burning ambition and desire.

“The Montreal Stock Exchange has an interesting history and evolution. Did you know it started in a coffee house in the 1830s?”

Jerome not wanting to stem his host's narrative with a placid shake of his head, what might be interpreted as a symptom of indifference, quickly responded with much feeling that he didn't know of its origins in a coffee house, and it was quite fascinating to learn this, very interesting.

“I know it sounds like two rival gangs of gun-slingers in the old west, but the Exchange coalesced around two sets of brothers, the MacDougall brothers, and the aptly called Bond brothers. In fact, I own a condo in one of the old Exchange buildings where MacDougall had an office.” He sighed and returned to his settee. “Life is indeed strange Jerome, very strange indeed.” He sipped his Sherry thoughtfully.

Jerome was uncertain where to take the conversation, so astonished he was at this opening up of a man he had just met. His own life felt quite parochial in comparison. “You must have had quite a career to achieve all of this,” he said.

“Well, more a 'life' than a career, much like yours, just different. So, Thaddeus tells me you have a Citroën, a deux chevaux. Where did you come by that one?”

Jerome was not surprised by this knowledge, realizing that he must have been vetted in some manner before being approached for the job. “It was my Father's car,” he said. “He left it with my Mother and I took it on. She found it impractical in Montreal weather. Of course I put it in storage during the winter months.”

“Yes, of course, of course,” Declan said nodding his head. “I too own a Citroën, a white four door Traction Avant. The front of the car gets me every time, the head lamps, the grill, the hood, the windscreen.” He sighed, picturing his car shimmering in its waxed perfection. “Perhaps tomorrow I can take you out for a spin. Weather permitting.”

They both heard the wood floor creak behind them and turned to see Lucrezia, dressed in dark slacks and a blue blouse slowly approaching them. Declan rose and greeted her with a kiss and a whisper in her ear, his soft graceful movements surprising Jerome with the versatility of this interesting man who could seemingly shift so effortlessly into a soft loving husband from the rather hardened self-made man. Declan proceeded to the cabinet to make his wife a drink while Lucrezia sat down on the settee. Jerome began to see her through the eyes of her husband, and realized that his perception of her had changed and that he would now alter his depiction of her in subtle ways, slight nuances that perhaps no one else could divine. She was very quiet and Jerome sensing an awkward moment, thought he would ask if her daughter would be accompanying them for dinner, but she then asked if Jerome's room was to his liking to which he replied that it was without doubt, the most interesting room he'd ever come across.

Declan returned with a small tumbler of clear liquid with a slice of lemon. “A little dutch courage for you my dear.” Sitting down, he turned to his guest, “So Jerome, do you have a sweetheart who is wondering where you are?” Declan asked, his arm around his wife.

“Yes, well no,” Jerome said somewhat embarrassed and taken unawares. “I do have a girlfriend, a freelance journalist. She travels quite a bit. The last I heard, she was in Edinburgh.”

“Ah,” Declan said somewhat remorsefully. “And what is her name?”

“Thérèse, Thérèse LaFlamme.”

“Well, let us raise a glass to Thérèse, may she find her story,” Declan said. The three of them drank from their glasses and looked towards the now diminished fire smoking slightly under the new log, the embers of the old ones, fiery coals of spent energies.


Arthur Roquebrune sat at his desk in his study, eyes shut, head back, listening to a recording of Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question. Perhaps it was the weather that made him choose that particular piece of music to listen to he thought. As the woodwinds made a short interruption to the strings and horns, he wondered if he heard the phone ring. A minute passed and he heard a light knock on his door. He opened his eyes as his wife entered just as the music briefly became busy, dissonant and cathartic. He put his hand up and walked over to turn the music off.

“Artur, I'm sorry, but there's a client of yours on the phone, a Thérèse LaFlamme. She seems upset.”

His eyes widened and his mouth opened in surprise. “Ah, very good. I can take it in here. Thank you my dear.” He walked over to his desk imagining all the possibilities that could have taken place, a magician's half-moon spread of playing cards for him to choose from, from specious through serious, from severe through to seismic. Sitting down, he stared at his muted old-fashioned phone before picking up the receiver.

“Thérèse, are you alright?”

“Yes, I'm so sorry for disturbing your evening, but something has happened concerning the Ashemore case, it has made me worry about Jerome and yourself as well.”

“Calm down. Now, where are you?”

Thérèse told him where she was and of the experience that occurred during the day. She told him she was worried that the files held in Wormwood & Verdigris might be taken and that Jerome might also be at risk by his indirectly being involved with her. She also admitted she had sequestered a copy of Ashemore's journal extracts at her old apartment, a copy in code. He took her phone number and promised to check to see if Jerome was in his house at the back of the Roquebrune's property and phone her back. This was getting out of hand he thought. He would burn the files tomorrow. There could be no value in this any longer. None of them were fit for such sleight of hand intrigues.

In the hallway closet, he was getting his coat on when his wife approached him asking where he was going.

“That was the girlfriend of Jerome, our tenant. She's worried about him. He's not answering his phone. I told her I would take a look.”

“Oh, well, Gaston, you know our neighbour across the street, nosey Gaston, well he stopped me on the sidewalk this afternoon, telling me he saw our tenant get into an enormous black car with a very large man who had put something in the trunk, and then off they went.”

“Did he mention what time that was?”

“He said this morning,” she replied. “I hope there's nothing wrong.”

“No, I'm sure it's fine. But I'll just go check the house.”

“Let me come with you,” she said.

He hesitated, but together they went out the back door, an old married couple arm and arm, making their way through the fog across their now damp lawn towards the back gate which led to a path along the side of the building they rented. They noted the lack of lights on in the house. Mr. Roquebrune peeked in the one window of the garage door and could see the glint of Jerome's car. They then went up the stairs and rang the doorbell only to be met by the reverberations of silence. Arthur realized that the spare key to the apartment was at the office in his desk drawer and cursed his lack of foresight. As they made their way back to their warm and inviting home, he wondered whether to withhold from Thérèse the information about the sighting of Jerome in the morning. And should he tell her that his car was in the garage but he didn't answer his door? Would he have to drive down to the office and get the key? He felt guilty for feeling upset his night was not what he had planned. He must do what he can for Thérèse he thought. It was all his fault after all. If it meant going to the office at this hour of the night, then so be it. Ultimately, he thought, Thérèse would be safe. He couldn't see violence in the cards. No skeleton reaper. No transformation. No sacrifice of the hanged man.


© ralph patrick mackay

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