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Authors: Jessica Brockmole

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BOOK: At the Edge of Summer
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“It's not what I expected from the son of artists.”

“Maman, she rebelled against her parents by running off to Picardy with a painter twice her age. I rebel by becoming respectable.”

“I don't know if you could ever be respectable in that red sash.”

He returned to the table with cloth-wrapped bundles and covered plates, a knife between his teeth like a corsair. “Once a bohemian, always a bohemian, I suppose.”

“Did you grow up wanting to be a teacher?”

“Of course not. I wanted to be an expert swordsman, naturally. And an ornithologist. And, for one solid summer, a brilliant English detective, like Sherlock Holmes. Mostly, though, I wanted to be a tennis star.” He offered a paper-thin slice of ham on the tip of the knife.

It nearly melted on my tongue. “So sweet!”

“Bayonne ham. It's cured in sea salt and air-dried on the ocean shore.”

I imagined I was tasting the sea. “Aren't you already a tennis player?” I knew nothing about the sport, but he'd come in swinging his racket like an expert.

“Not just a player. A star. Like Paul Aymé or André Vacherot or Max Decugis.” He brushed back a dark curl from his forehead. “Playing in the Championnat de France, the French Covered Courts Championship, the Riviera Championship. They even have tennis in the Olympics now.”

I'd never heard of any of those men or any of those tournaments, but the way he said their names, the way his face glowed and his words slipped over one another in excitement, I leaned closer. “And will you? Will you be a star?”

He busied himself unwrapping a wedge of bright orange cheese. “There's nothing all that practical about dreams like that.”

“Whoever said dreams had to be practical? If they were, we wouldn't have to hide them in the middle of the night.” I didn't wait for him, but broke off a crumbling bite of cheese myself.

He looked up under a fringe of lashes. “So what are yours?”

The cheese was sweet and nutty and utterly delicious. “My dreams?” I brushed crumbs of cheese from my lips. “Well, I've never told anybody. I'm sure you can guess.”


“I'm sorry?”

“The cheese. It's Papa's favorite.” He cut me another piece, but held it just out of reach. “Confess all or the mimolette goes on the fire!”

“Of course it's art.” I hopped down from my stool and snatched the slice of cheese. “The Glasgow School of Art, like our mothers. I want to learn to draw, to paint, to sculpt, to carve, to etch, to…arrange, to design. To learn anything they'll teach me there.” I ate the cheese in a single bite. “And I won't leave school, like my mother did. To give up on all of that, for marriage?”

left the School of Art to marry, too.”

“Was your father also a student there?”

“Worse. He was her instructor. It was quite the scandal.”

“Mother spoke fondly of your father. She omitted all the good details, it seems.”

“They were all friends, I think. Our mothers, our fathers.” He wiped the knife on his towel. “I've seen some of Papa's studies from that time. Boisterous dinner parties, cafés, picnics, rowing on the Clyde.”

Mother always spoke of art school longingly, but never of her life in Glasgow. Had she once worn Gypsy earrings like Madame Crépet? Drunk black coffee and argued socialism in smoky cafés?

Father had been part of that life. For a brief time he'd stepped outside of his architecture apprenticeship long enough for night classes at the School of Art, long enough to fall for a redheaded art student named Maud. I'd always wondered what had brought them together. I wished I'd asked him about it when I had the chance. I wished I'd asked him about a lot of things.

“And then they married and left all that behind,” I said. “The rowing, the parties, the school.”

“They stayed friends, though. Even when my parents left Glasgow for France.” He uncovered a dish and, with a corner of bread, scooped something pale brown and creamy. “Here, this is garlic pâté.”

I took the bread but didn't eat. “They couldn't have been as close. They lived in different countries, they had different lives. They only saw each other once a year.” I ran a finger through the pâté and put it in my mouth. It tasted like garlic and herbs, like autumn in the woods.

“I suppose I've never had a friend to grow apart from,” he said.

Neither had I. After Mother left, Father kept me close. Maybe he was lonely. Maybe he was worried I'd disappear next. “One must always begin somewhere,” I said, the taste of pâté still on my tongue. For the first time in a long while, I let myself smile.

lare Ross wasn't the first stray that Maman had brought to Mille Mots. She was forever carrying in some wretched creature, a sore paw or a broken wing tied up with her pocket handkerchief. Apart from Marthe's parakeets, we'd housed numerous dogs, several scrawny cats, a handful of birds, a baby mouse, and, on one occasion, a three-legged squirrel. To me, a teenage girl was as mystifying as a pet squirrel.

It must have been just as mystifying for Maman. She wrote me from Calais to say she was bringing home a visitor, her old friend Maud's daughter.
Will you come home at the weekend, Luc? Your papa is working on that frieze, the one with the serpents and the swans, and is in Reims most days. I'm sure Clare doesn't want to be stuck here with no one but me.

And though I had lessons and work and tennis games I'd rather be playing, I didn't argue. There was a note of desperation hidden in Maman's note. I pinched the inside of my wrist, the way Maman always had when I was a boy and swung my legs during church. A good Crépet.
I'll be there Saturday night,
I wrote back.

I didn't want to play nursemaid. I expected black crepe and tears, stiff-necked Britishness. I expected dreary hours of being polite. Instead I found a girl, hesitant in the front hall of the château, with a halo of Titian hair and a wispy dress the color of summer leaves. She might have been one of Papa's fairy queens. Her face was shuttered, yet her eyes were intense and curious, flicking from one thing to the next. I wondered how she saw Mille Mots.

Though I tried to study on the train ride back to Paris, my thoughts kept going to Clare Ross and her single, careful smile. I sensed that she didn't offer them often. Though I hadn't planned on it, I knew I'd be back soon.

When I returned the next Saturday, Mademoiselle Ross wasn't in the château. I found her out under the old chestnut tree with a sketchbook resting against her knees. She still wore that leaf-green dress. Two of the dogs stretched out on the grass beside her, one snoring, the other watching my approach with rapt attention and wagging tail.

“There you are.” She pushed her straw hat back from her face. “I haven't seen you in days.” Despite the hat, the tip of her nose was pink.

I bent to pet Bede the springer, who jumped up, wriggling, and licked my wrist. The other, a pudgy mutt we called Ripper, yawned without opening his eyes. “Paris. Remember?”

She nodded. “Anyway, you're dressed differently. At first I thought you were a country curate coming across the lawn.”

I looked down at my black suit, narrow cravat, ink-stained shirt cuffs. “The unofficial uniform of a student.”

“I liked your red sash. The one you were wearing while you played tennis?” She poked the end of the pencil in her mouth. “You looked like a pirate.”

“Have you met many?”

“Pirates? Not as many as I'd like.” She patted the grass and I dropped down next to her, easing my satchel from across my chest. “I used to pretend my grandfather was, though. He was always gone, traveling.”

“Sailing the seven seas?”

“Nearly. Africa, India, the Far East. He's a linguist, you see.” She said this with an air of confession, as though it were a shameful secret. “I haven't seen him in years. I don't even know where he's at now. His last letter came from Ceylon.”

I cleared my throat. “Does he know about…”

“Yes.” Her hair swung out over her shoulders so that I couldn't see her face. “I wrote to him. I told him about Father.”

A bird fluttered up from the tree, sending down a leaf onto Ripper's nose. He sneezed and rolled over. “And your mother?”

She busied herself with her sketchbook. “Oh, I wrote to her, too. I've written to her almost every day for the past four years.” Her pencil scraped across the paper so hard the tip broke. “I only wish I had an address.”

I didn't know the right thing to say. What to say to a girl whose mother ran off without a backward glance? Maman said that Maud Ross was passionate, vain, impulsive, and stubborn as a she-goat. She loved her friend to the end, but knew Maud would never return.

Cicadas filled the silence. I scooted closer. “So what are you drawing?”

“Nothing.” She hunched her shoulders. “A castle.”

The hem of Clare's dress brushed my leg. “You're drawing Mille Mots, aren't you?”

“Are there any other castles around?”

I stretched. “It isn't really, you know. Just the fantasy of a silly vicomte some centuries ago. He had royal aspirations.”

Maman fell in love with the château instantly, and Papa had his easel set up outside the tumbled-down old chapel before the first crate was unpacked. The gardens were left wild and overgrown, at her express instructions, and she spent all summer carefully cultivating that wildness. I spent my early years with the outdoors as my classroom. I learned to read amidst the scent of roses and river. Mille Mots was our little heaven.

“If I had such a house,” Clare said, “I'd have royal aspirations, too.”

“Not if you knew how much it cost to keep it from falling the rest of the way down.” I regretted the words right as I said them. This girl, with her fancy green dress, buttoned boots, proper British country house, she wouldn't understand. With all of the money going towards this ragged château, to preserving this precious little bit of paradise, there was nothing left over, even for my tuition. I pushed out a smile, hoping she wouldn't take me seriously. “But you're right, it does look like a castle, lost here in the countryside.”

“I half expected a drawbridge to lower when we arrived.”

“I was always sure I'd find a sleeping princess hidden behind the roses and thorns.”

She glanced up from her sketchbook, a look of amusement in her eyes. “I didn't realize boys read fairy tales.”

“They do when their fathers found their fame illustrating an edition of Perrault's
Les Contes de Ma Mère l'Oye.
” I made a face.

“Perrault's fairy tales?” The astringent smell of crushed grass rose as she sat up and brushed at a smear of green on her skirt. “Of course! ‘C. Crépet.' It's a pale blue book, isn't it?”

I wasn't surprised she knew it. The book had dogged me through my childhood. In boarding school the boys called me “Prince Charming.” “That's the book.”

“It's…what do they call it…art nouveau?”

“Don't say that over the tea table if you want to avoid an argument. It's the Glasgow School style, of course. Can we talk about something else?”

She settled herself back on the grass. “I hate fairy tales anyway.”

“That's ridiculous. Who hates fairy tales?”

She tugged on a hair ribbon. “You do. You should've seen the look on your face when I mentioned I'd read the book.”

I hated that I was that easy to read. She, on the other hand, wasn't. “You're baffling.”

From her seat on the grass, she executed a mock curtsey. “Thank you.”

“Was that a compliment?”

“Wasn't it?”

“Boys are so much easier. Nothing we say to each other is a compliment. We just expect everything to be an insult and we all get along fine.”

And for that, she smiled. It was only a little smile, but unexpected. It filled her whole face with light. I wondered how I could keep it from slipping away again.

“I know where Papa keeps his extra pencils,” I said quickly. “He won't notice if we go to borrow a few.”

“Pencils?” She sat up straighter.

“Conté pencils,” I said. I stood up. “Freshly sharpened.”

She followed without further question, her sketchbook tucked under her arm, walking quickly as though any pause would cause me to reconsider the offer of the pencils. Ripper stayed under the tree, but Bede trotted along with us. I led Clare inside, up the stairs, to the part of the house that always smelled comfortingly like turpentine and linseed oil.

“We're going to Monsieur Crépet's studio?” she asked in a whisper. “Is it allowed?”

“Definitely not.” There were few things Papa disapproved of. Academic art. Yellow journalism. Spain. Anti-Dreyfusards. And people rummaging around in his studio. “Why do you think he keeps dueling pistols?”

She stopped stock-still in the hallway.

“Or blades? He'll offer you a choice.”

“Stop teasing me,” she said, but she didn't move from her spot on the hall rug.

“Don't worry. I'll be your second.” I reached out and tugged on her arm. “Don't you remember? You're safe with me.”

She looked down at my hand on her arm until I let go. “As long as you're not leading me into trouble.”

“I thought ladies were impressed by feats of daring?”

“We're certainly not impressed by assumptions.”

I bowed. “And the mademoiselle has won that duel.”

The hallway outside of Papa's studio was quiet, but I waited a moment with my fingers on the door. I wasn't as offhand as I pretended. Even Bede took one look at the studio door and bounded back downstairs, toenails clicking. Only when I was sure that there was not a sound from within did I push open the door.

The room was almost blinding after the dim, ruby-papered hallway. Windows stretched from ceiling almost to floor and, with no curtains anywhere, light shot enthusiastically into the studio. Papa was too enamored with shadow and changing light to let the south facing windows worry him. Overhead, cords crisscrossed the ceiling, with sockets for electric bulbs. Only the doorway was darkened, with piles of furniture and hatboxes and stacks of filmy fabrics on either side.

“It's magnificent,” Clare exclaimed, stepping in.

Though I'd been in the room dozens of times, I understood. Papa's studio had always filled me with an awe that I'd never admit. Not when I'd brushed aside his hopeful suggestions for the Glasgow School of Art or, as much as it pained him to suggest, “even the Académie des Beaux-Arts, if you must.” I couldn't admit that, like a cathedral, Papa's studio exuded a peace that I sometimes wished I had.

Clare traced a finger over the arch of the curved mauve sofa Papa used to pose subjects. “Is this where he painted the fairy-tale illustrations?”

“Some.” I went to the cabinet where I knew he kept supplies. “In the mornings he likes to work outside, by the river. Afternoons he's in here.”

“The easel is empty.” She caught up the end of a diaphanous scarf and swirled it over her shoulders. “Where does he keep his paintings?”

I found new brushes, oil pastels, tubes of pigment, but no pencils. “The walls of the château.” I peered into the dark at the back of the shelf but only saw more tubes and a jumble of empty jars. “Or the walls of other châteaux. He does take commissions at times.”

“But he also paints for himself?”

“He does, though not as much as he used to. It makes Maman crazy. She thinks he should only paint what he will sell.”

She paused in front of a mirror and tried on a greenish top hat. “He paints for art's sake, not money's sake.”

For some reason seeing her in that top hat made my neck hot, so I pulled over a stool and resumed my search farther into the cabinet.

“Don't you see?” she continued. “Sometimes art springs unexpected from a deeper place. Your soul, it has a story to tell, and the drawing, the painting, the sculpting, are only the medium for that story.”

They were heady words for a fifteen-year-old. But her eyes reflected in the mirror were resolute. She understood this passion, this itch, this frenetic creating that seized Papa. I never had, but this young girl, somehow she did.

She turned. “You've grown up surrounded by
” She waved a hand around the studio, at the dust and light and smudges of color. “I'm sure you know. Art can be personal, emotional, spiritual. Glorious and expansive. Restorative, even. It's more than shapes on canvas or brushstrokes or curves in clay. It's…well, it's expression.”

BOOK: At the Edge of Summer
4.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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