Authors: Jessica Brockmole
“And when it's a commissionâwhen Papa is painting fairy-tale queens or Parisian bankersâwhere is the expression in that?” I leaned against the cabinet door.
“He paints them as he sees them. It is not a photograph, is it? No. It is a fairy-tale queen or a Parisian banker as viewed by Monsieur Claude CrÃ©pet.”
I pointed at the tiny clock perched on the windowsill. “If you wish to do more snooping, Madame Je-sais-tout, you are running out of time.”
She set down her sketch pad on the mauve sofa. “Where does he keep the rest? The ones he doesn't hang and he doesn't sell?”
Up on the top shelf of the cabinet, I found a small box of square red ContÃ© crayons. I slid a few from the box and wrapped them in my handkerchief. “Most are unframed. In the next room. Some are unfinished.”
I looked up to see the end of the scarf float through the adjoining doorway.
“Mademoiselle, you should come out of there.” I abandoned the cabinet and walked across the studio. Halfway, then stopped. “Papa doesn't allow anyone in that room.”
“It's only canvases, all stacked up. Does he sell these ever? It's horribly dusty in here.” Then, to herself, “Oh, how fascinating!”
“They're studies, done up in pencil. Nymphs, satyrs, a feast.” Frames rattled. “There's a finished one. Dancing women in white dresses, like Botticelli's
“Be careful,” I called.
She sneezed. “And here are some all covered up. I wonder whatâ” She broke off with a stifled gasp.
“What is it?”
“Maman? In a painting? He always teased that she couldn't sit still.” I moved towards the door.
“No, stop!” She sneezed again. “You shouldn't see this one.”
Clare was silent for a space. “Becauseâ¦because she hasn't a stitch on.”
I froze. “She hasn't?” I backed away from the doorway.
In a house of artists, there was no shortage of nudes on the walls. They had been, dare I say, instructional to me in my formative years. While other adolescent boys had been speculating about breasts, I had an arrayâin oil paint, that isâto peruse. But never,
I sank onto the mauve velveteen sofa in dismay.
“It's really quite elegant,” she said from the other room. “The painting, I mean. She's holding three roses and lounging on that purple sofa out there.”
I sprang to my feet.
“Oh heavens, there are
“More?” I repeated in horror.
“Here's one where she's standing in front of a mirror, trying on a top hat. Goodness.” The hat Clare had been wearing came bouncing out through the doorway. “One where she's reading
and eating a slice of melon. And this one she's in a chair withâ¦what is that? A butter churn?”
“I think we should leave,” I called in to Clare, but she continued flipping through stacked canvases with a rattle.
“Here's one with a horse. Well, that doesn't look comfortable.”
“And here'sâ¦” But she didn't finish her sentence.
She appeared in the doorway, holding a small framed canvas in her hands.
“Please, mademoiselle, I don't wish to see a painting of my
” I crossed fingers, like one might do to ward off bad dreams.
“But it's not. It's not your mother at all.” She turned the canvas around to show a redheaded woman wearing nothing but a pair of high black stockings and an enigmatic smile. “It's mine.”
didn't recognize Madame Ross in the painting, though the one time I'd met her, more than a decade before, she'd worn a hat and considerably more clothing. I could see the resemblance to Clare in the tilt of her chin and the steady gray eyes. Clare's hair was that same deep auburn. And those long fingers, wrapped around the handle of a fan in the painting, they looked like the very ones holding the frame. Which, I noticed, were white-knuckled, indeed.
“Monsieur, are you quite finished?”
I looked up to see her mouth drawn in a tight line. “Finished?”
“Ogling my mother. Are you finished?”
“I wasn't ogling, mademoiselle,” I said quickly. “I was comparing the resemblance.”
I instantly knew it wasn't the right thing to say. Two spots of color appeared high in her cheeks and I could feel my own following suit.
“In the face.” I said it perhaps too loudly. “In the face only. I was looking nowhere else.” But of course, saying that made my gaze go right to Madame Ross's
She had a small mole on the left one.
“Monsieur!” she exclaimed.
I covered my eyes. “
put it away.”
“Why did sheâ¦why is itâ¦here in your father's studioâ¦.”
“Well, it's one of his works,” I offered helpfully, peeking out from between my fingers. “See? His initials are right there in the middle, painted over herâ”
“I know where they're painted,” she said, face flaming.
“It's really quite clever, how he's incorporated the two Cs right into herâ”
She cleared her throat pointedly.
“But why?” she wailed. “Why on earth did he paint my mother inâ¦such a state?”
“And why did she pose inâ¦such a state?”
Clare refused to answer that.
“Are you so sure it's accurate? That he didn't just paint her face and then, well, imagine the rest?” I uncovered my eyes. “Now right hereâ¦does your mother really have aâ”
“Luc RenÃ© Rieulle CrÃ©pet!” She flipped the painting around, away from my view.
“You've remembered my full name.”
“And you've forgotten your manners.” She glared at me over the top of the frame. “It's my mother you're talking about.”
mademoiselle.” I went to close up the supply cabinet, trying very hard not to think of
When we left the studio, Clare kept her eyes fixed on the hallway rug.
“Papa has painted me before.” I tried to sound reassuring. “Many times.”
“And your mother. Many, many times. Once with a butter churn.”
I made another attempt. “They were good friends, our parents.”
She sped up, still refusing to look at me. “Better friends than I thought.”
I stopped walking. Thankfully, so did she. “I'm not very good at this.”
“I'm not very good at knowing the right thing to say.”
“I'm not either.” She pressed her hands to the front of her skirt. I realized that she'd left her sketch pad back in the studio.
“I wouldn't worry too much about it.” I took a step closer. “Papa, he paints all sorts of things. Not all of it means something.”
“Did you not listen to a word I said in there earlier? About art being honest, meaningful expression?”
“But you're wrong. Not all of it means something,” I repeated. “You need to see
Hat Rack, with Cat.
Hat Rack, with Cat,
was Papa's very first painting, at least the very first that he allowed Maman to frame and hang on the wall. It was tucked away down at the end of the west hallway, next to the blue powder room that no one ever used. I took Clare there and waited with crossed arms while she puzzled over it.
It was, literally, what it claimed to be. A striped tabby draped on the top of a nearly empty hat rack. Only a singular top hat, shiny and bent, hung from a peg. The painting bore none of the angularity that marked Papa's later illustrations, but it played with color, like a Matisse. The cat's whiskers were lined in blue, the old top hat shadowed in green. Come to think of it, it might have been the same hat Clare had tried on in the studio.
“It's about the weariness of familiarity,” Clare said finally. It sounded like the thing an art student would parrot.
“Isn't it just a cat?”
“Is a cat ever just a cat?” She threaded her fingers behind her back and paced, the way Papa always did before a painting. “Is not a cat sometimes aâ¦aâ¦” She gave the cat an accusatory stare. “Goodness, what else could it be?”
“Friendship.” I straightened the frame. “At least that's what Papa always said.”
“Friendship?” She took a step closer. “Well, the cat, he's a Manx cat. See here?”
“So? Papa's never been to the Isle of Man.”
“Beneath the cat's paw is a herring.”
“Herring?” I bent. “There is?” I'd walked by the painting hundreds of times and never noticed the gray herring between the claws. “Papa's never been to Man, but he had a friend from there. Used to visit in the summers nearby when they were boys. I don't know his real name, because Papa always called him âHerring.'â”
“Ah-ha!” She nodded, satisfied. “And the hat rack?”
“Herring wanted to be a milliner? I don't know.”
“He wanted to be great.” She snapped her fingers. “He wanted to be on top.” I was skeptical, but she was delighted. “You're wrong. It is more than a cat. It's a story of boyhood dreams.” She waited a moment before adding, “Told you.”
Though I thought she was ridiculous, I brought her to
a still life of eleven apples, carefully arranged in a pyramid atop a gleaming plate. “Surely this speaks to him balancing his career and his family,” she said. I showed her
a rosy ribbon curled on top of a scarred wooden table, with a tight knot right in the middle. “This must be when he met your mother. Lovely, yet strong right at her core.” With
Cheese Pots, Unguarded,
a painting with two open crocks of the soft cheese eaten in Picardy, she said, “He was feeling nostalgic, missing Picardy all the way from Glasgow. And he felt vulnerable because of it.”
Those paintings of Papa's lining the walls of the chÃ¢teau had always been just that to me. Still lifes, landscapes, illustrations, the occasional portrait. But Clare, she found a story in each.
She'd stand before one, hands locked behind her back or thoughtfully stroking her chin, and weave thoughts, emotions, adventures for poor Papa. “Really, they're like the pages of a diary,” she said, “spread all over the house.”
His early still lifes, down the west hallway, morphed into his illustrations, framed and hanging in places of prominence in the front of the house. Those defiant, forbidding, arresting paintings in the Glasgow School style, all sharp lines and murky colors. Truth be told, those paintings terrified me as a child. Evil queens, stubborn princesses, unflinching knights. Bluebeard's wife, holding a bloody key aloft. Little Red Cap caught beneath the jaws of the wolf. Sleeping Beauty, twined with roses, but with an ogre's eyes glowing beneath the bed. I used to run down the front hall with hands to the sides of my eyes, like horse blinders. I didn't want to catch a glimpse before bedtime.
As though reading my mind, Clare said, “I used to think they were frightening. Perrault's fairy tales, that is. And your father's illustrations fit them so well.”
“He painted other fairy tales too. Not as part of a commission, but just because he liked them. Snow White and Rose Red, battling the wily dwarf. Trusty John, turning to stone. Rapunzel, wandering alone in the wilderness.”
“I like this one.” Clare touched a frame. A girl, red curls resting on a pumpkin, lay in front of a smoldering fireplace.
“Cinderella. He mixed soot in his paint to get the texture exactly right.”
“It's not that.” She sighed. “She looks so lonely.”
A nearly orphaned girl, sleeping in a borrowed place.
“She wasn't completely alone.” I reached past and pointed to the mice and crickets tucked into the corners of the painted kitchen, the starlings peering through the window, the lean dog nestled against Cinderella's bare feet. “There are always friends if you look.”
She turned and peeked up through her eyelashes. My face suddenly grew far too warm.
“My favorite,” I said, clearing my throat, “is the queen from Rumpelstiltskin, sitting on her throne, her spinning wheel in the background. He borrowed a spinning wheel from Marthe's mother and stood it in the corner of the studio for ages while he painted. I played with it until I accidentally âpricked my finger.' It was only a splinter, but I didn't know that. Maman found me lying in the rose garden, convinced I was doomed to sleep for a hundred years.”
“And when you awoke, did you find true love?”
It was a silly question, tossed off over her shoulder. There had been adolescent kisses in country lanes, infatuations with cabaret dancers, and an earnest crush on my uncle's long-legged mistress, VÃ©ronique. But no love. I barely had time enough for tennis.
She noticed I'd stopped. “As for me, I don't think it exists. True love. It's as make-believe as a magical spindle.”
“I'm French. We're supposed to believe that one can fall in love once a week.”
“Then why haven't you?”
Something in her question was expectant. An expectancy that surprised me, given that this was only our second real conversation. Clare Ross, when she gave her trust and her friendship, gave it completely.
But I evaded. “If you see how my
used to dress me, you'll understand why I've never inspired a great passion in any girl.”
I took her to see the few portraits in the east hallway. She followed the string of Lucs down the hallâa fat-cheeked baby clinging to the back rail of a chair; a scowling boy in a hated lace-collared blouse and long curls; a boy, prouder and freshly shorn, posing with a tennis racket and a smile. She laughed at each one and I blushed.
“They're not very good,” I mumbled. “I didn't really have hair as long as that.”
“Pity,” she said, with a glint in her eye. “I think the curls are rather fetching.”
I refused to answer.
“It's interesting, though, how even the portraits of you contain so much more than your face.”
“My tennis racket, of course. And in that one, my rocking horse. He put my favorite things in the paintings.”
She stepped closer to the one of me scowling at the painter. I was almost seven in the picture, furious to be sitting in a moth-eaten ruffled blouse rather than off meeting other boys. At seven, I was sure I was missing out on some vital part of manhood, both in the outfit and in the time spent sitting still.
“There's more. Right there, around your wrist. A ribbon? And what are you holding clutched in your fist? I can just see the gleam of something.”
“Marbles,” I said. I hadn't even noticed Papa painting them in. “That summer, I was mad about marbles. We all were. Marthe's oldest son, Alain, would tag along with her and we'd play in the dirt outside the kitchen door. Our playing was fierce.”
“And the ribbon?” She touched the painting, where my wrist stuck out from the end of my jacket. “Or was it a bracelet?”
“A ribbon.” I yanked my sleeve down as though she'd really touched me. “That was the summer Maman left us.” I shrugged, hoping I looked nonchalant, as though I still didn't think of it now and again. “She and Papa, they'd had a terrific fight and she went to my grandparents' in Perthshire. I snuck into her wardrobe and pulled a ribbon from her dressing gown. Wore it around my wrist under my shirt all summer. I missed her.”