Jerome looked out from the bedroom window. The black feather remained on the window ledge like a slender leaf, while below, an exterior light diffusely washed a small area of the gravel walkway revealing fallen leaves like footsteps of an errant wanderer.
He returned to the desk and sat down. He stirred the spoon in the glass of water before him and watched as it was transformed into a shrouded consistency much like the atmosphere outside. It had been recommended by Declan to overcome the richness of the dinner. His housekeeper's recipe. It tasted salty and slightly bitter, much like baking soda and something unknown to him.
He opened the journal he had started, and began to write.
It is late. It must be past midnight. Wednesday, in the dark, awakening. I was just looking out of the bedroom window at fallen leaves on the pathway below and thought of Thérèse, the leaves like her distant footsteps. I remembered that oracles used to write their answers on leaves and disperse them, the redeemers having to decipher the order and meaning. The leaves below could be messages from a forest oracle. If I gathered them, would I discover an answer to my question concerning the mystery of Thérèse, or would the ambiguity of the answer lead me astray, reflect my fears, mirror my desires? Or are they but scattered emissaries of oblivion, or mere dust in my hands, sans sign or symbol, a lure to coax me out into the night and its uncertainties?
This reminds me of my youth, staying up late and writing night thoughts while the city slept.
The night is foggy once again. Declan said it was a half-moon night. The evergreen trees in the distance seem to be one dark structure with Gothic carved pinnacles, a wilderness cathedral for a fairy tale land where panthers and unicorns wander secretly, tempting me to leave this comfortable warm room for its very inverse.
Oh, dear, the wine is still talking.
When Thaddeus escorted me down to dinner, we passed a fine Longcase clock with hands like a sword handle and blade cutting the day in two, six o'clock; there was nothing odd about that, except that it was still at six o'clock when I passed on my way back to my room. The strange thing is, I thought I heard it ticking.
When Thaddeus left me, I waited in the drawing room for my host and hostess, a comfortable space with antique furnishings and nineteenth century English art. Declan, husband of Lucrezia, took me by surprise when he entered the room. He is a fascinating man and a tempting model for a painting so unique are his features. He comes from humble beginnings, Irish Catholic poverty in Point St. Charles. Self-made he seems, self-made he is.
But the dinner! I've never eaten venison let alone squab. Foie gras stuffed squab at that. I overcame my resistance and looked upon it as an experience, but I admit to not eating all the meat—the vegetables helped me through. The wine was very robust and loosened my tongue. It was a fine dark red Malbec from France, Cahors, the very best according to Declan. Thankfully though, he's not a wine snob.
Lucrezia was dressed in dark slacks, and a blue blouse with a strand of pearls. Declan was in green. Even though they were both casually dressed, I still felt a bit shabby, but was not made to feel so. Lucrezia was at first quiet before dinner, but later became more talkative, a few gleams of fugitive wit. One phrase I remember was, “I generally look up when things are on the way down.” I can't quite remember in what context she said it though. I would think it more his sort of phrase. Perhaps it is and she used it. Stocks falling in value, birds falling out of the air, autumn leaves descending, or the decline of old money. Best to be out of the way if things are falling I would say. Or is it possibly a religious reference? Fallen angels? Back to my imaginary oracle.
I'm still a bit muddled from the wine. Not used to drinking so much, especially expensive wine.
If I wake early, I shall try and get out and explore the gardens and the maze, get some fresh air, and possibly a sense of where I am. Breakfast is to be at eight. Supposedly Thaddeus is to be my alarm clock.
It was just the three of us for dinner. A daughter is away at university in the States studying medicine. If she is anything like her parents, she should be interesting. What happens when two green-eyed people have a child? Mendel's pea comes to mind—my remnants of high school science.
Declan mentioned he had been interested in buying Boreas, a painting by Waterhouse that had come on the market back in the 1990s, but the bidding went over what he was willing to venture, the picture selling for close to $1.3 million. He described the picture to me, and used the word purple to describe the woman's diaphanous shawl and dress caught in the wind, but Lucrezia thought it more blue than purple. This discussion of clothes and colours, brought up a fleeting memory of a dream I must have had before coming down to dinner. I was in some kind of subterranean area like the métro, with modern art, and a purple SUV, which I felt was mine, but then I saw a man drive away in it, a man who I felt was my father. Very odd. There I was sitting at the table, my mind adrift with dreamscapes while they looked on as if I had entered some kind of catatonic state. Perhaps they were thinking I was contemplating the nature of painting and commerce, how certain styles of painting can be left behind and under appreciated, and then once more gain fashion, like Burne-Jones's The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon. New art slays old art, and then old art rises like Lazarus when fresh eyes are born in another age. I managed to respond, somewhat hesitatingly, that I could try to paint a reproduction of Boreas for much less than $1.3 million. They laughed.
I seem to be rambling, the wine still pulsating in my veins, directing the pen. Some of this may appear senseless tomorrow morning.
We dined very casually. Declan at the head of the table, and Lucrezia across from me. We touched toes twice. The table was a very long Chippendale and it would have been rather ridiculous if they sat at opposite ends and me in the middle. There was a dumbwaiter cleverly disguised behind a Flemish still life, and Declan was our server. Yes, it was very odd. He told me, as he brought the first course to us, that he used to be a waiter at the beautiful art deco restaurant on the ninth floor of Eaton's department store. He said it had been a wonderful place to work, good for making powerful connections, and helped to pay his way through University. He said he never forgets his roots, and that it gave him pleasure to “pitch in” from time to time.
After dinner, Declan brought me through to his library. A large room with beautiful oak shelving and panelling. Many sets, Dickens, Bulwer Lytton, Scott, Conrad, and interesting travel books. He collects R. B. Cunninghame Graham, the only author he tells me, who, as far as he knows, has dedicated a book to a horse. He showed me first editions, some inscribed, and told me a bit about the author; also a story concerning Solomon J. Solomon who, when preparing to paint a portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh for the House of Commons, asked Cunninghame Graham to be the sitter. Declan opened one of Graham's books and showed me a sketch of the author. Very Raleighish. Impressive. An aristocratic socialist according to Declan. A right old Hidalgo who was active in Scottish politics
I then told him about artists and their search for faces. The story of how the unusual London artist, Austen Osman Spare would use local down-and-outers for faces from the Elephant and Castle neighbourhood where he lived, while Osbert Lancaster, the successful caricaturist, would use the faces of members of the clubs he belonged to. Artists in need of faces. High and low.
This just reminded me of the reproduction of Albayde by Alexandre Cabanel which I have over my desk, the nose of the woman is very close to that of Lucrezia's. Of course.
Memories, like built up layers, from gesso to imprimatura, from impasto to fugitive colours.
Declan then led me to a book shelf in the corner of the room. He pushed in one volume and the bookcase quietly opened towards us. A sham library door. The titles on the spines were amusing. Some of the many titles I can remember are “Lamb on the Death of Wolfe”, “Bleak Houses,” and “John Knox on Death's Door,” all beautifully bound in leather with gilt lettering. Perhaps the whole door was imported form England.
Declan's private study lay within. It was approximately 300 square feet in dimension, and contained a few old walnut cabinets filled with books, an old leather club chair, side tables, lamps, a large mahogany desk, a number of marble pedestals with bronzes, and on the walls between the cabinets, selected works of art, his Varleys, a few larger paintings of ships and rough seas, and one large Pre-Raphaelite painting. I was stunned. Overcome. He said it was the fourth version in oil of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's “Proserpine.” The model is obviously Jane Morris, but her hair is auburn. I was overwhelmed. The sonnet in the upper right hand corner, and his signature and date, 1880 in the lower left. I didn't know what to say. It was quite beautiful. Declan said it came with an old English house he purchased, “Castlebourne.” Many of the furnishings, books and bronzes as well. The old house had a history going back to the 17th century, with various additions and alterations through the years. The painting is stunning. The way the woman's clothing falls like ripples of water. Extraordinary. He appreciated the effect it had upon me and proceeded to his desk where he pulled out a leather case and opened it to reveal a locket of hair which he told me belonged to Rossetti's wife, Lizzie Siddal. I looked upon this memento mori and I thought of Thérèse.
On the way out of the library, he stopped and gave me a two-volume set of Rossetti's poetry in case I was in need of reading material. It may have been around 9:00 when I returned to my room. I soaked in the bath for awhile and then read a few of Rossetti's poems but could only think of the painting. Perhaps the bed was too soft, the pillows too plump, but though I tried to sleep, I merely tossed and turned, the tapestries and their narratives watching over me. The ship above my head made me feel I was beneath the water looking up. Then I heard something pass in the corridor outside my door and I decided to get up and write in this journal. Now I feel properly exhausted. I am not used to such stimulation. Such richness in all its variety. If oblivion takes me now, at least it will be in luxury.
Jerome put his pen down and stretched his neck and shoulders. He reached out for the glass of cloudy water which he had been unsure of and drained the glass, feeling much like a romantic poet having his nightly laudanum. He closed the journal and made his way back to bed. One volume of Rossetti lay upon the sheets, and he picked it up and looked at the table of contents. One poem he noticed was called Insomnia and he thought that would be appropriate. He flipped to the page and read the poem:
Thin are the night-skirts left behind
By daybreak hours that onward creep,
And thin, alas! The shred of sleep
That wavers with the spirit's wind:
But in half-dreams that shift and roll
And still remember and forget,
My soul this hour has drawn your soul
A little nearer yet.
Our lives, most dear, are never near,
Our thoughts are never far apart,
Though all that draws us heart to heart
Seems fainter now and now more clear.
To-night Love claims his full control,
And with desire and with regret
My soul this hour has drawn your soul
A little nearer yet.
Is there a home where heavy earth
Melts to bright air that breathes no pain,
Where water leaves no thirst again,
And springing fire is Love's new birth?
If faith long bound to one true goal
May there at length its hope beget,
My soul that hour shall draw your soul
For ever nearer yet.
Jerome, thinking of Thérèse, closed the book and placed it on the bedside table, and turned off the lamp The darkness left him blind and he closed his eyes and let those half understood stanzas carry him like pall bearers into the realm of sleep.
© ralph patrick mackay
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