So softly did someone tread the stairs, that Jerome, sitting at his hallway table compiling a list of art supplies and groceries required, was startled when he heard a knock on his door. Thinking it odd, he sat in silence wondering who it could be. The knock once again, firm, three taps. The silence was resolute. He opened the door. It was either Bartholomew or Thaddeus before him.
“Are you able to have a visitor? Mrs. L. would like to check on the progress of the painting.”
Jerome looked down to the back lane and saw a medium sized black car reflecting the fine layer of snow in its waxed lustre. “Yes, yes of course.”
Bartholomew descended the stairs just as quietly as his ascension and opened the rear passenger door. Lucrezia stepped out, spoke a few words to him and then, looking over the top of her sunglasses to Jerome, made her way up towards him.
“Forgive me for descending upon you like this, but we we're in town and I was in the neighbourhood, so . . . .”
“Not at all, come in,” he said closing the door behind her. “Please excuse the mess. Have a seat.”
“Thank you. It's not messy,” she said taking off her glasses while looking around the living room. “Just what I imagined, comfortable and bohemian.” She sat upon the sofa and crossed her legs, her attractive calves on show.
“I've always liked the look of nineteenth century painter's studios,” Jerome said. “Oriental rugs everywhere, heavy antique furnishings, embroidered pillows, old bookshelves, marble and terra cotta sculptures in the corners, half-finished canvases on dark wood easels, Persian carpets draped over tables.” He stood awkwardly above her thinking, although dressed in a tailored suit jacket and skirt, she didn't look out of place. “The house of the Victorian illustrator and painter, Marcus Stone, has always been my ideal. Enormous windows and skylights with extraordinary natural light diffusion. He lived on Melbury Road in London near many other artists and sculptors, Fildes, Thornycroft, Holman-Hunt, and directly behind Stone, Lord Leighton had a home and studio. Unfortunately Stone's house has now been divided into flats selling for millions of pounds each.” He shook his head. “Hard to imagine artists of today living in such splendour. Victorian artists were like today's rock musicians. Actually, one of the houses on the street is owned by an old rock star. I'm sorry, rambling on about myself and old houses. I've just made a small pot of coffee. Would you like a cup?”
Breathing in the aroma, she thought it would be graceless to refuse. She nodded. “Yes, that would be nice.” She looked around the room thinking it truly did exude a snug bohemian comfort. Taking off her gloves, she noticed a booklet for a music CD on the table beside her. Rough Draft, either the name of the group or the album. She flipped the small pages and her eyes were arrested by one song entitled S & M, and she read the lyrics to the sounds of Jerome's preparations.
I'm a cappuccino cowgirl
Living on tomorrow,
Riding the tweet.
Like it, Pin it,
Tumble it dry,
Oh, the déjà strain
Of repetitive eye.
Word of mouth,
My brand's my key tattoo
North by south.
I'm a social selfie
To my Sado paparazzi
I'm just a Solopsist.
Dying for freedom,
Fighting for choice,
Texting out of treason,
Seeking a voice.
More Apps than I can see,
More Apps than you can take,
I'm A skeleton key
For the eye of escape.
More than I can see,
More than you can take,
I'm a skeleton key
For the eye of escape.
More than I can see,
More than you can take,
I'm a skeleton key
For the eye of escape.
Jerome noticed her reading the booklet as he approached with the tray laden with mugs, cream, sugar and the coffee carafe, but decided to ignore it as a conversation starter.
He poured the coffee. “Do you take cream, sugar?”
“A touch of cream please.”
“There you are,” he said, handing her a cup. “Yes, when I explored Melbury Road in London on foot a number of years ago, I remember wondering how a developer was allowed to raise a concrete apartment block near the beautiful Victorian villas.” As the words passed from his lips, he realized she could interpret them as critical towards her husband's profession as a real estate developer. “Lord Leighton's house fared better,” he said trying to change the direction of his conversation. “It's now a museum.” They both sipped their coffee. “I used to wonder if Leighton and Marcus Stone ever got along, exchanged words over the backyard fence so to speak. Evening strolls with a cigarette, or cigar, conversations about models, fading pigments, natural light, their public.” Jerome put his coffee down and leaned back in his side chair. “Marcus Stone died in his house. I like to think he collapsed while working on a painting.”
“Ah, perhaps his ghost wanders the hallways seeking revenge.” She smiled. “I hope I'm not too forward in dropping by to have a peek at the painting? Am I breaking protocol? Painter's protocol?”
“No, I'm pleased. I'd like your opinion actually. I haven't seen anyone in a week so to have your perspective would be great. Sometimes I get too close and can't see it anymore.”
“Sure, it's upstairs, if you'll follow me.”
“You lead, I'll follow.”
With a slightly higher heart rate, and a flush to his cheeks, he mounted the stairs feeling her eyes upon him. Their words had been like double entendres, sheer curtains around a canopy bed with their bodies entwined. The image made him nervous. She was married and he was in a relationship, though Thérèse's memory loss had made him feel like an impostor, informing her of what they had once shared, experienced, felt.
The large easel in the middle of the room held the canvas beneath a white cotton shroud. Jerome stood to the side, his hand on the sheet, waiting for Lucrezia to position herself, and as the sheet slipped to the floor with a whisper of surprize, she felt the colours hit her viscerally, overpowering her breath like a strong gust of air. Head slightly back, arms crossed, she approached the portrait, looking directly into her painted eyes, following the curve of the brow, her chin, her lips, remarking the pinkish hue to her cheeks, an ideal smoothness beyond the reality of her morning reflections. “It's wonderful. You've captured. . . my twin, a different life, a different age.”
“Maybe we all have our theoretical twins following different paths in other ages.” They shared an intense look before Jerome turned his eyes away. “It should be ready by the end of the month. Just the background and the lower portion of the chair are left.” He walked over to the window. He didn't see Bartholomew or the car. “I hope I didn't make your cheeks and your fingernails too . . . incarnadine,” he said to the window. “Your beauty added subtleties to the eyes and lips bringing a greater sense of vivid life compared to the original Lucrezia Panciatichi who, due to the times, was portrayed as rather . . . stolid. Spiritual, but stolid. There's more sub-textual expression in the placement of her fingers than in her face.”
She looked at the hands, the fingers parted over the armrest, the fingers resting on the small book. “You have a gift Jerome. It's perfect.” She approached and stood beside him looking out the window. “With your talent, you could have your ideal studio if you wanted. Are you one of those who feel undeserving of success?” Not waiting for a reply, she continued, “An old friend of mine from University was like that. She was extremely smart, talented, and wouldn't accept her gifts. When fortune came her way, she suspected something like a trap, and reared up. Sometimes there's no trap, sometimes life is all cheese, and one must accept it.” An awkward silence surrounded them. “I'm sorry, now I'm sounding like one of those motivational DVDs.”
“No, I understand. I do lack a . . . certain professional drive to succeed.”
Lucrezia wandered over to his work table covered in the preparatory sketches, jars of brushes, pencils, sharp-nibbed dip pens like miniature spears, erasers, books, and rags. She noticed a slim volume with spots of red paint on the cover, Alacrity and Karma on a Yacht off Palmyra by P. K. Loveridge. The title made her recall a conversation between Declan and Harry when they were relaxing at their home in the Caribbean. Harry had been reading a book concerning the death of a wealthy couple and the theft of their yacht off the small atoll of Palmyra in the Pacific ocean, which led to a dinner conversation over the dangers to rich people yachting around the world where pirates and criminals were afloat. A lifestyle with too much freedom can be rife with vulnerability had been their conclusion. She looked up and noticed a woman staring at her from a reproduction of a painting attached to a cork board, a nose similar to hers, aquiline, but the eyes were sullen and dark with an unfathomable emotion. “Who painted this portrait?” she asked turning around to him, pointing her finger at the subject.
“Oh, that's a painting by Alexandre Cabanel, his Albayde. He was an Academic painter, anti-impressionist at the time, old school but a brilliant painter and teacher nevertheless. I saw a retrospective on his work a few years ago in Montpellier. I think it was the first since his death in the late 1880s.” Jerome walked over to a corner bookshelf and withdrew a large glossy softcover catalogue. “Here, you can borrow this and look it over.”
She flipped it open and seeing a self-portrait of the painter when young, thought he looked like Jerome. “He looks like you, though you don't have his severe and intimidating expression.”
“Umm, yes, people have said as much. I wonder if he ever smiled? The painting, Albayde, was inspired by Victor Hugo's poetry collection, Les Orientales. The fantasy and the colour of Orientalism was such a great theme in Romantic painting and literature. What do you think of her eyes? ”
She looked more closely. “Mesmerizing and menacing at the same time. I wonder what the model thought of Cabanel? Was she angry? Desirous? Do models fall for their painters like patients for their psychiatrists?”
“Ah, well, that I don't know. I can't say it's happened with me.”
Leaning over the table, she rubbed shoulders with Jerome.“Too bad for Mr. Loveridge's book,” she said pointing to slim volume on the table.
“Oh, yeah, but the author's a friend of mine, Pavor Kristof Loveridge. He won't mind. He recently returned from Italy and proposed marriage to his girlfriend of many years and they're to marry in the spring. She's a librarian at the Religious Library at McGill.” Seeing the chance to bring up the cause of Duncan Strand and his business dilemma, he elaborated. “It'll be a small wedding at the McGill chapel. I'll be best man and a new friend of ours will be the groomsman. An interesting guy named Duncan Strand, a bookseller who used to work for some shop called Grange Stuart before opening his own called Lafcadio & Co. But the funny thing is, he's also running an old family business in the same building, selling all types of rope. Well, for a few more weeks anyway. A company has bought the land and is going tear it down and build condominiums. He has to close both his shops. Reopening a secondhand bookshop in today's world isn't feasible according to him. Bookshops are closing due to high rents and low demand.” Jerome related this information in his most casual manner while arranging the sketches on the table, avoiding eye contact.
“Duncan Strand?” she said. “I know the name. He did work for my husband many years ago. A catalogue of old books.” She walked back to her portrait and stared once more at her mythical twin. “That's unfortunate. I think my husband's company is involved in that development. Perhaps I could have a word with him. See if something can't be done to help our Mr. Strand.”
Jerome looked at her wondering if he should press her with questions about the catalogue and see if she'd bring up the Dark Room, but decided against doing so. Pleased with her response, he joined her before the portrait and thought he'd help portray Duncan as a sympathetic type. "It's a small world. It's a shame he has to close the bookshop. I had dinner with him and his wife, Amelia, a translator, and he told me how much he loved visiting second hand bookshops for he never knew what might be on the shelves. Each visit would be a little adventure in promise, possibility, discovery. He went on about the joy of finding books with unusual inscriptions. He had many stories about inscriptions but I remember the one about a copy of Tom Jones, where the owner had written their name and underneath, Christmas present from himself and the date. Something poignant about that. Made me think of a lonely man at Christmas, reading Tom Jones for consolation.”
“That's very sad, yes.”
“Except for his book choice. I imagine Tom Jones must have kept his spirits up.”
She laughed and laid her hand on his shoulder.
Turning his head towards her, his lips only inches away from her fingers, he reached over and gently pulled her hand towards him and kissed her delicate fingers and her palm, and she turned to him, drawing his head down to her parted blouse, and then all sense of the outer world with its defences and barricades dissolved around them as they embraced with mournful undertones under the gaze of the portrait, her twin, neither stolid, nor too spiritual, and under the gaze from afar, of Albayde, sullen and all-knowing.
© ralph patrick mackay