Jerome looked up from the canvas—from the delicate complexion of Lucrezia captured in paint—feeling uncertain as to the meaning of her question. He stared at her, his lips parted as if his private language had been wrested from him and made audible by a form of magic. Did he have anything to tell her? The question was like a net thrown wide to encompass a diversity of answers. It could hint at many possibilities he thought.
There was a knock at the door.
Thaddeus entered and made his way over to Lucrezia, who, with her back to the door, turned her neck to look over her shoulder, a pose that reminded Jerome of that exquisite bust of Clytie by G. F. Watts he'd seen in London years ago; Clytie, the water nymph transformed into a flower ever turning her head towards the sun, but in this case, away from the window towards the shadows behind her and to Thaddeus who whispered into her right ear. Jerome felt a touch of envy. The faintest watercolour wash of jealousy. She nodded her head and Thaddeus made his way to the door without a look towards Jerome.
“Excuse me Jerome, I must leave for a few minutes. Have a drink or a sandwich in the fridge.”
He nodded his head, closing his eyes with understanding. He couldn't help but follow her fine figure as she made her way out.
Saved by the knock. Or not. If she didn't know of his entering the Dark Room already, then perhaps Thaddeus was providing the message at this moment. Why did he have to succumb to curiosity? He was brought up to respect other people's property and privacy. Was it this very house communicating to him on an unknown level, leading him out of his room in order to come across Lucrezia closing the door to the hidden Dark Room? The timing of it all made him feel like a detective pulled towards a clue. He felt like he was falling into one of Pavor's suspense novels. And why their mysterious reluctance to fully reveal themselves to him? Was it merely a desire to retain their country living undisturbed by the likes of him?
It was perhaps the way her question had surprised him like flashing lights in the review mirror. What did he have to tell her?
A folding pentaptych painting took form in his mind. The left exterior door panel concerned his painter's progress, and revealed him painting Lucrezia in this very room; the other side provided a representation of his being shown the private office of Declan with the Rossetti Proserpine. On opening the hinged doors an interior triptych was revealed, the left hand image, his exploration of the maze, and the right hand side, his discovery of the Dark Room, while the large middle panel, a triangulated passion of amber, ochre, burnt sienna, vermilion, coral pink, his dream of making love with Lucrezia. The hidden triptych of his guilt.
With a fresh brush, he began to mix a bit of ultra blue with a touch of viridian and tested it on the bottom of his study thinking he might just paint such a pentaptych. He could ask his friend and frame maker, Ghanesh, a fine woodworking specialist, to create one to his specifications. He could see it already: gilt oak with rosettes and a thin outer black fluted frame striped in gold, like the one framing Rossetti's painting Monna Vanna he'd seen at the Tate.
What did she want to hear? What was she referring to? He could tell her about meeting Harrington, and the story of the laugh, the copy, or echo of a brother's laugh bringing them together after so many years apart. An enchanting story. Or he could tell her of being shown her husband's private office and Rossetti's Prosperpine.
Jerome heard the door open and he stood up as Lucrezia approached, her hips swaying ever so slightly in her low heels. She smiled and sat down. “Sorry for the interruption. So, where were we?”
She didn't appear to show signs of being upset. Her manner hadn't changed. “You had asked me a question. What do I have to tell you? Well, I met Harrington at breakfast. Very nice man.” Jerome looked at Lucrezia's lips. “Your husband recounted the story of the laugh.”
She didn't move, but merely nodded. “Ah, yes, the laughter across the room. It's one of my husband's favourite stories.”
“It's certainly a . . . an enchanting story.”
“Harry's such a gentle man. So talented. His laugh is unforgettable. So, did you sleep well?”
Jerome felt unbalanced, as if he were walking in deep sand. His initial assumptions of Lucrezia being a mere trophy wife had been washed away revealing a shape shifting form of uncertainty. Was she a scholar of forgotten esoteric lore? Was she trying to follow up on something Catherine Fenton, the designer of the maze, had written? A manual for the proper use of the maze and the obsidian mirror to attain . . . to attain what he couldn't possibly fathom. He hesitated with his brush over the colour palette. “I did have a strange dream,” he said, looking at her for any visible signs of complicity. “I was in a room with you . . . and your husband, and a number of my friends. Bartholomew and Thaddeus were there too, playing billiards on a round table.” He had forgotten about this light dream. Another possible panel for his imagined painting.
“Really? That's very interesting,” she said. “Beneath your bedroom in the corner tower, there's a billiards room.”
“Is there a painting of me on the wall by any chance?”
She laughed. “There is a painting but I don't think it's you. Anything else?”
He offered her the right hand side of his imagined pentaptypch. “Declan showed me his private office and the exquisite Proserpine by Rossetti. The colours are so rich.” He looked once more at her lips mixing nameless and numberless tints in his head. "I think I could stare at the painting for hours if it was mine."
“Hmm, yes, a beautiful painting. Perhaps I should be jealous. Of my husband being alone with such a beautiful woman."
He plied his brush on the background of the canvas cleaning it of excess. “I'm afraid I took advantage of your maze this morning and lost myself within it.” He opened up his imagined painting voluntarily in an effort to slow her approach to the subject of the Dark Room. Running scared. “I'm sorry if I overstepped your courtesy.” He noticed she crossed her legs and sat further up in the chair.
“Did you . . . come upon the centre?” She was lightly bouncing her left leg over her right knee, her voice relaxed, unconcerned.
“Yes. I . . . arrived at the sundial.” Jerome lifted his thumb up in a hackneyed manner of measurement, his thumb joint being the distance from her top lip to her chin. “I rested on one of the stone benches and wrote down many of the stone inscriptions in my note book. It was a moment of peaceful, calm stillness. Until Beaumont arrived that is.”
“Beaumont?” She smiled. “He knows the maze well. Eyes and nose close to the ground make all the difference.”
“Perhaps I should get down on my hands and knees next time.”
“Like a pilgrim. Yes, it might work.” She coughed and reached for a crystal tumbler of water on a table beside her. “I remember an occasion visiting St. Joseph's Oratory, and as I climbed the many stairs I came across a man on his knees making his way to the top. A prayer at every step, hand making the cross.” She paused looking down at her delicate knee enveloped in tan suede, and ran a hand over it, smoothing out the nap. “I talked to him an hour later on my way down. Such belief in our age of science and technology is as rare as the disease the man's daughter was suffering from. He was praying for a cure.” She paused tilting her head back. “It's interesting how the words cures and curse are but a letter away.”
“Hmm, yes,” Jerome said softly, almost to himself, sensing she was casting off a thin veil of self-knowledge for him to catch, and he breathed in the aromatic resins of her spiritual interests like a devotee. A small revelation, a parsimonious gift.
“In comparison to the man, I felt like a gawking tourist," she said. "Gazing at the reliquary holding Brother Andre's heart, staring at the display of canes, crutches and walking sticks, impressed by the aesthetic beauty within.”
Jerome swept a dash of cadmium yellow and worked a touch of raw sienna into it. “I painted a number of copies for a client who lived up behind the Oratory. My client could look out his window and see the dome. I think it was just a few steps down to an entrance. The easy way in.”
She thought of saying that the easy way in was never rewarding but held the words back. Had she not taken the easy way in by marrying Declan? She looked out the window behind Jerome, catching glimpses of pale blue sky and the sun. “So, what copies were they?”
Jerome rested his brush and looked at her with a half smile. “Although I'm not very good with a painting knife, they were copies of works by Paul-Emile Borduas. His black and white series. People walking by my client's house could see the paintings on the living room wall and be impressed. Vanity I guess. Part of the decor. I've also copied a few triptychs of Francis Bacon. Originality is difficult. Copying is . . . well . . . it's technique.”
“We have a Francis Bacon in one of our residences. Horrid thing. Upsets me every time I enter the room. Do you sign them with the original artist's signature?”
“No, never. I always do variations instead of exact copies. Slight differences in subject, perspective, but colour much the same palette. I use the name of Lacier Pinto for such paintings.”
“Derived from the letters in the word 'replication.' I like it. It seems apt. Pinto refers to painting in Spanish.”
“Ah . . . yes, very clever. I'll have to keep my eye out for any Lacier Pinto paintings on the market”
He laughed. “Probably not worth much.”
“Well, you're like a . . . magician with paint aren't you. Old masters to modern abstract. I wasn't aware you had such a breadth of . . . talent.”
They exchanged eye contact and he tried to smile as he felt his cheeks blush. A silence descended upon them, an awkward silence. He felt certain she had discovered his breach of privacy. The Dark Room, he felt, was now creating a distance between them.
“Painters are formed by their society to a great degree,” he said, trying to shift the conversation to drier, less emotional ground. “Francis Bacon never studied art. He did it by the seat of his pants as one of my teachers was fond of saying. A very odd duck. An outsider who used everyday images to capture a moment, often a twisted moment, and what he produced was disturbing. He even began painting on the unprepared side of the canvas, the wrong side, the one you see before you, the back if you will.What he produced was a reflection of the dark century he lived in, acceptable reflections of true reality whatever that is. I'm sorry, I feel like one of my old professors.”
“No, no, continue. I'm all ears,” she said smiling at him.
“When I was a student, I wrote a long art history paper on the paintings of the Victorian George Frederick Watts. A quintessential Victorian in many ways. When young, he went to Europe and to Asia minor to study and paint, and he produced some pleasant landscapes and I remember thinking he should have pursued a career as a landscape painter. Anyway, when he returned to London in the 1840s, he was overwhelmed by the poverty and suffering and he produced a number of realist paintings depicting what he saw, Found Drowned, Under a Dry Arch, Irish Famine, Poverty. It was a Dickens world, but whereas Dickens could write about it and move his readers to compassion and understanding, his illustrators still provided sentimental images to accompany the text. For Watts however, no one wanted to look at paintings of a drowned prostitute, or near skeletal homeless people huddling under a bridge to keep dry. No one would want them on their walls. No gallery would show them. It was my thesis that the Victorian society forced him towards his use of symbolism and allegory and made him a lesser painter for it. At least in our eyes today.” Jerome put his palette and brushes down, got up and stretched. “Francis Bacon lived during a time when there weren't restraints on the acceptable. People called his paintings ugly and horrifying but he didn't care. He didn't have to fit in like Watts had to conform.” Jerome began to walk about the room, articulating his words with hand gestures. “Watts wanted to fit in, find his way into the upper ranks, so he worked on his grand allegories while also being a prolific portrait artist. All the usual bearded and moustachioed suspects, the stern-eyed stuffed shirts as well as his fellow artists and writers. Tastes and perceptions change though. What many Victorian's thought of as plain we find very appealing. Watts's early double portrait of Long Mary is today very appealing and modern. His portrait of Rachel Gurney, is to my tastes, one of his best portraits, although I do like his Pre-Raphaelite inspired portrait of Jane Senior. Rich, rich colouration. But symbolism. Much of his work along those lines doesn't stand up very well. The exception being his Minotaur which hangs in the Tate. In my paper, with reference to his Minotaur, I made parallels to the work of Francis Bacon. The monster is depicted from behind showing its heavily muscled torso and its massive fist crushing a small bird, a symbol of purity. It made me think of some of the works of Francis Bacon. The almost abstract muscularity of the terrible beast with its vacuous gaze and open mouth, I perceived as resonant with some of the work of Bacon, specifically his Painting 1946. The grim, bleak violence of it. My professor didn't quite see the connection but I remember receiving a very good mark.”
“I think I've seen the painting you're talking about on a book cover. What's it symbolic of?”
“Yes, it would make a good book cover. The Minotaur is leaning over the parapet of the labyrinth looking out to sea for the ship bringing him his human sacrifices. It symbolized the horrific fact of prostitution on the streets of London at the time, and was his way of expressing his outrage and despair, and a way for Victorians to get the message without being . . . mortified. I think he painted it around the mid-1880s, but only gave it to the Nation ten years later or so. I don't think many Victorians got the message. If you visit the Tate Gallery, you must see it.”
“If it reminds you of Francis Bacon, perhaps not.”
Jerome stood before the window looking out towards the autumn colours feeling like he had escaped the harbour of his subterfuge and was slowly floating out to sea. She joined him. Her arms were folded and her left shoulder touched his right arm and he let the sedative seduction of her lavender fragrance overwhelm him. He imagined himself turning to her and kissing her lips with their numberless and nameless tints.
“Has society formed you?” she asked.
His fantasy faded like a sigh. “No doubt, no doubt.” The broad complexity of her question felt like an anchor dragging the dark cold depths for a hold. “I've never thought deeply about what I've become. Too much self-knowledge might hinder my creativity.”
“I thought you were all technique.”
Feeling he was being lightly mocked, his self-respect was roused. “I do have my own paintings. I'm not just a copyist.” He turned around and sat upon the wide window sill, arms crossed. “You must visit my studio. I can show you my portfolio.”
She put her hand on his shoulder. “I'd like that. Come. We'll go find my busy husband. He mentioned he wanted to show you one of his old cars. Something you two have in common it seems.”
© ralph patrick mackay