The Swan Thieves Chapter 104 105


Chapter 104 Marlow

On the plane to Dulles, a blanket over my knees, I imagined Olivier's last letter--burned, perhaps, in the grate of her Paris bedroom.

1891

My darling,

I know the risk I take in writing you, but you will forgive an old artist's need to say good-bye to a comrade. I will seal this with care, trusting that no one but you will break it open. You never write, but I feel your presence in every one of my days in this alien, bleak, beautiful place--yes, I have tried to paint it, although heaven knows what will ever become of my canvases. Yves told me in his latest letter, about eight months ago, that you have not painted at all and that you dedicate yourself to your daughter, who has blue eyes, an open nature, a keen mind. How lovely and bright she must indeed be if you have transferred that gift to your care of her. But how could you, my love, put away your genius? You might have enjoyed it in private at the least. Now that I have been in Africa a decade and Thomas is dead, neither of us could be a threat to your reputation anymore. He kept the best of your work for his own glory;could you not take revenge by going on to do even better? But you are a stubborn woman, as I remember, or at least a purposeful one.

Never mind;I see at eighty what I could not even at seventy, that one forgives almost everything in the end except oneself. Now I forgive even myself, however, either because I am weak in character or because anyone would have fallen as I did at your feet, or perhaps simply because I do not have long to live--four months, six months. I do not mind, particularly. Everything you gave me cast a long light hack down my years and doubled their illumination. I cannot complain after having had so much.

But I did not pick up my pen today to tax your patience with philosophy-- rather to tell you that you will have the wish you whispered to me, at a moment I recall with the sharpest feelings, your request that I should die with your name on my lips. I shall. I'm sure there's no need to tell you that, and this may never even fall into your hand--the post from here is uncertain at best. But it will reach your ears somehow, that murmured name.

Now, my dearest love, think of me with all the pardon you can muster, and may the gods shower you with happiness until you are far older than this old wreck. Blessings upon your little daughter and Yves, lucky in your safekeeping. Give her a story or two about me when she is grown. I am leaving my money to Aude--yes, Yves has told me her name and he will hold my savings for her in the account in Paris. Use a small part of it to take her to etretat someday. You know that it, with all the villages and cliffs and walks around, is a painter's paradise, should you ever pick up a brush again. I kiss your hand, my love.

Olivier Vignot

Chapter 105 Marlow

The morning of my return to Goldengrove was equally sunny;I seemed to have brought spring back with me from France. I had also brought Mary's ring, a nineteenth-century setting, rubies and gold, that had cost me more than my whole previous six months'expenses put together. The staff was glad to see me, and I got through the first onslaught of messages and paperwork on a single cup of coffee. Their notes, and those of Dr. Crown, in whose care I had left Robert, were reassuringly positive;Robert had still not spoken, but he had been busy and cheerful, had seemed engaged in the common meals, had smiled at patients and staff.

Then I checked on my other patients, two of whom were new. One of these was a young girl, released from suicide watch at a DC hospital and determined to get well enough to cause her family no more pain. She told me that watching her mother weep in fear over her had changed her mind about many things. The other newcomer was an elderly woman;I doubted she was in fit physical condition to be here, but I would confer with her family about her. She offered me her leaf-thin hand for a moment, and I held it. Then I took my briefcase and went to Robert.

He sat on the bed, a sketch pad on his knees and his eyes vague. I went right up to him and put my hand on his shoulder. ’’Robert, may I talk with you for a few minutes?’’

He rose. I read the anger in his face, the surprise, something like hurt. I wondered if he would have to speak now-- You took my letters. Maybe he would say Damn you, bitterly, as I had said to him. But he simply stood there.

’’May I sit down?’’

He made no motion, so I sat in my usual place, the armchair, a sort of home, a familiar spot. It felt strangely comfortable to me today.

’’Robert, I went to France. I went to see Henri Robinson.’’

The effect was immediate;his head jerked around and he dropped his sketchbook to the floor.

’’Henri has forgiven you, I think. I returned the letters to him. I'm sorry I had to take them without asking you. I was afraid you would not consent.’’

Again, an immediate surge of affect;he stepped forward and I got to my feet, feeling safer that way. I had left the door open, as always. Looking at him, however, I saw that he was not hostile, only startled.

’’He's glad to have them back. Then I went with him to a village that is mentioned in the letters. I don't know whether you'll remember--Gremiere, where Beatrice's maid came from.’’

His gaze was fixed on me, his face pale, his hands dangling at his sides.

’’There was no evidence of the maid's family there, but I went because Henri told me that Beatrice had put something in that village that would show the truth about her love for her daughter. We found a drawing--a series of studies, actually, with her initials.’’

I took my own sketches from my briefcase and was acutely aware, for a moment, of my lack of skill. I handed them silently to him. ’’Beatrice de Clerval, not Gilbert Thomas. You guessed that?’’

He held my sketches in his hands. It was the first time he'd ever taken anything I'd tried to give to him directly.

’’There was a letter with these studies. I've brought you a copy of that, so that you can read it for yourself. Henri has translated it for me, too. It is from Beatrice to Olivier, and it proves that Thomas blackmailed her and claimed one of her greatest works as his own. You guessed that, too, I think.’’

I gave him the folded sheets. He stood holding them, gazing.

Then he put one hand over his face and stayed that way for several seconds, interminable time. When he uncovered his eyes, he was looking directly at me. ’’Thank you,’’ he said. I hadn't known, or hadn't remembered, how pleasant that voice was, resonant and rather deep, a fitting voice.

’’There is something I simply can't understand.’’ I stayed by him, conscious of his eyes first on me, then on the sketch. ’’If you suspected that Leda was Beatrice's work, why did you want to injure it?’’

’’I didn't.’’

’’But you went in there with a knife, on purpose.’’

He smiled, or almost. ’’I tried to stab him, not her. But I was also not in my right mind.’’

Then I saw: the portrait of Gilbert Thomas counting his coins. Robert had come into the gallery alone. Yes--and he had taken the knife from his pocket, opened it rapidly, lunged as the guard who had just come in lunged for him in turn. And he had scraped the frame of the scene that hung next to the Gilbert Thomas self-portrait. I wondered what would have happened to Robert inside, to his already fragile state, if he had damaged Leda, his love. One of his loves. I touched his shoulder. ’’And are you in your right mind now?’’

He was serious, a man taking an oath. ’’I have been for quite a while. I believe so.’’

’’Some of this could happen to you again, you know, with or without Beatrice. You will need to see a psychiatrist and perhaps a therapist, and to keep up your meds. Maybe forever, to be safe.’’

He nodded. His face was open, attentive.

’’I can recommend another psychiatrist if you don't stay in the area. And you can always call me. Think hard about this, first. You've been here a long time.’’

Robert smiled. ’’So have you.’’

I had to smile with him. ’’I'd like to see you again tomorrow. I'll be in early, and you can sign the releases then, if you feel ready. I'll let the staff know--you can make any phone calls you need to today.’’ This last part was the hardest for me to say;there was one person whose life I didn't want him to touch again.

’’I'd like to see my children,’’ he told me in a soft voice. ’’But I'll call them later, when I can get myself settled somewhere. Soon.’’ He was standing in the middle of the room, his arms crossed, his eyes bright. I left him, then--he returned my handshake warmly, if a little absently--and went to my other duties.

I did manage to get to Goldengrove very early the next morning, since I was still on Paris time. Robert must have been watching for me;he came to my office door as I was organizing for the day. He had already showered and shaved and dressed neatly in the clothes I'd first seen him in, and his hair glistened with damp. He looked like a man awake after a hundred years'sleep. The staff had apparently given him some large bags for his possessions, which he had propped up in the hall. I could still feel Mary's arms around my neck, see the ring on her hand as she slept. He had not called her, and I now understood, beyond a doubt, that she did not want him to. I would have to decide whether to let Kate know about his release, too, of course.

Robert smiled. ’’I'm ready.’’

’’Are you sure?’’ I asked him.

’’I'll call you if I get into a bad situation.’’

’’Before you get into a bad situation.’’ I gave him my phone numbers and his papers.

’’All right.’’ He took the forms and read through them, signed without hesitation, returned my pen.

’’Do you need a ride somewhere? Or can I call you a cab?’’

’’No. I'd like to walk a little first.’’ He was very tall, lingering in the doorway to my office.

’’You know, I broke every goddamned rule for you.’’ I wanted him to hear it, or perhaps I just wanted to say it aloud.

He actually laughed. ’’I know that.’’

We stood looking at each other, and then Robert Oliver put his arms around me and embraced me for a moment. I had never had any brother, or a father large enough to crush me, or a friend of this magnitude. ’’Thank you for your trouble,’’ he said.

Thank you for your life, I wanted to tell him, but I didn't. I meant, Thank you for mine.

I let him go alone, although I would have liked to walk him out, to smell the early morning that was his again, the flowering trees on the old drive in front of the building. He strode directly up the hall to the main door, and I saw him open it and step out, take his bags, close the door behind him.

I went to his room instead. It was empty, apart from his painting supplies;he'd piled those neatly on one shelf. The easel stood in the middle of the floor with a finished painting of Beatrice on it, unsmiling but radiant. That would be for Mary, and I found that I didn't mind the idea of delivering it. He had taken his other paintings with him.

I know now that I guessed right, that day. Robert would go somewhere new and paint: landscapes, still lifes, living people with quirks and attractions, with the ability to grow old--pieces that more than ever would grace collections and hang in museums. I couldn't quite foresee, of course, that his rise to lasting recognition would be my only message from him, perhaps ever, and the only one I needed. I would follow his paintings of his children as they grew, of the new women in his life, of the unfamiliar pastures and beaches where he set his easel. Robert had been right--I had gone to some trouble, although not entirely on his behalf. In payment, I'd kept something for myself: those long minutes in Paris, in front of a painting the world may never see. I have had my large rewards, my joys, but the small ones are as sweet as any.

1895

Almost night. The light is hopeless now;dark branches merge with one another and with the deepening sky. I imagine him putting away his things, scraping his palette. He is cleaning brushes near the lantern when she walks by again, close to his windows this time, returning with a hasty step from her errand. He cannot make out much of the face inside her hood;she must be looking at the ground, at the ice, the puddles freezing over, the patches of snow and mud. Then she glances up and he sees that her eyes are dark, as he'd hoped;he catches their glow--not a young face, despite her lithe body, but one he might have fallen in love with if his heart were younger, one he would like even now to paint. Her gaze catches the light from his window and she bends her head again, picking her way in shoes too good for this trampled road. He notices that her hands hang empty at her sides, as if she has left behind whatever they cradled--a gift, food for a sick elder, mending for the village seamstress, he guesses, or even a baby. No;it is too cold a night for a baby.

He doesn't know this village as well as his own;Moret-sur-Loing, where he will die in about four years, is to the west. An end he is aware of already. The pain in his well-wrapped throat is not enough to dim his curiosity, and he gently opens the door and looks after her. A carriage waits at the near end of the lane, before the church;fine horses, lanterns lit and hung high. He can see the sweep of her dark, ornamented skirts as she climbs in;she pulls the door shut with a black-gloved hand, as if to prevent the driver from getting down and delaying them further. The horses strain, their phantom breath visible in the air;the carriage creaks forward.

Then they are gone and the village is quiet, as usual at this hour, sinking into night. He locks the door and calls his servant from the back room for a little supper. Tomorrow he must go home to his wife and studio, waiting just up the river, and send a note to the friend who so kindly lends him this place every winter. A short drive back in the morning, and then more painting, for all the time left to him. Meanwhile, the fire has begun to throw shadows around the room and the kettle on the hob is boiling. He surveys his afternoon's landscape;the trees are quite good, and the strange woman's silhouette makes a mark of distinction on a rural road, gives it some mystery. He has added his name and two numbers to the lower left corner. Enough for now, although he will touch up her clothing tomorrow, and fix the light on those windows in the farthest house, at the end of the lane, where old Renard is mending harnesses. The paint is setting already on his new work. In six months it will be dry. He will hang it in his studio;he will take it down some sunny morning and send it to Paris.

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