“So why did they defrock you?” she asked as she painted.
“Oh I held a Black Mass in my church; naked nuns singing and dancing, that sort of thing. It was fun to watch but it isn’t a fashionable thing in the Church of England.”
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Edith responded as she added some burnt yellow to the canvas. “And some of these nuns can be quite lascivious”.
The Reverend Meredith was lying in the grass, his copy of Paradise Lost out in front of him. He was tall and dark, and appeared sombre in appearance until you saw the humour in his eyes and heard the laughter in his voice.
“It was fun, but the Bishop objected.”
“They usually do.”
They had met at the hotel two days ago in a rather respectable part of Naples. She was sitting at a table watching the guests as they entered and he, as was his wont, came over and talked to her. She was in need of a companion as her maid Elizabeth was ill in bed with stomach cramps, and without someone to push her wheelchair she could not go far unless she hired someone, and she did not want to do that.
He sat down next to her and asked her about herself. She immediately trusted and liked him; there was a kindliness about him and a reliability. She suspected that he did not let people down.
“I am a painter,” she told him, “and I want to paint the city, the port and the volcano, and the people, especially the people. I want to capture Naples.”
So every day he pushed her to where she wanted to go and whilst she painted he read poetry or sometimes the Bible. The year was 1922 and the world was a very strange place to be.
They talked in languid tones as he pushed her through the streets of the busy city; watching the throngs of people. He had been there almost four months and he loved Naples; the humanity and bustle, the beauty and the ruins, the smells and the markets with all sorts of exotic food, fresh from the sea, the lemon and orange trees. And the heat; after living in cold and damp England for all of his life he loved the warmth which penetrated to all of him.
Edith loved the light; that revealed everything, the views of the coast, Mount Vesuvius in the distance and the people with their faces made dark by the sun. She felt healthier here than she had for a very long time.
They sat in the botanical gardens and he recited "The Owl and the Pussycat" to her. She had never heard it before.
“I didn’t have much of a childhood,” she admitted. “My parents longed for boys, but boys never appeared, just three girls and they had no interest in us until it was time to marry us off. Then I got ill, but I doubt they would have married me anyway.”
Meredith laughed. “Why not? You are beautiful and clever.”
“You are either drunk or after something!” she retorted.
But she was beautiful; light brown hair, a face that looked demur but with a hidden smile and startling blue eyes.
“My sisters both found husbands, but I stayed at home with my parents, looking after them. My mother’s companion, my father’s secretary.”
“Are they still alive?” he asked.
“My mother died five years ago and then papa two years later. I lived with my sister Sarah in Highgate for a few months and then I decided to travel. My parents left me money and I wanted to paint rather than be an unpaid nanny. So I lived in Bordeaux for awhile; I loved the sunlight and then came to Rome and now here.”
“Why did you decide to travel?”
“My painting. I have always painted. My parents hired someone to give me lessons; a student from the Slade. He said that I was talented. But I could not paint in England, I was stifled. I wanted sunlight and warmth. And also, I feel better in the sun; my joints don’t ache and I feel stronger.”
He watched her as she talked, and thought that he had never seen anybody so beautiful; not even his wife who he had left behind to her lover and to her self-pity. There was a smell about her; some kind of vanilla scent, which ever afterwards he would associate with that afternoon; sat in the gardens watching the well-to-do of Naples promenading and talking in hushed tones.
They had sex in Naples. Her maid had gone home to England thinner and paler than when she had left. Meredith walked into Edith’s room unannounced to find her naked and looking at herself in a mirror. Her hair was down, long beautiful locks that almost reached her bottom. She was holding onto the arm of a chair tightly and studying herself intently
“I am hardly an oil painting,” she said.
But she was lovely; she had a surprisingly large bosom and skin that glowed pale and eerily.
“You are a masterpiece,” he responded as he carried her to her bed. She was thin, but perhaps she had always been like that. In his arms she had strength and was uninhibited..
“Thank you,” she said afterwards; her face flushed and embarrassed.
“Why are you thanking me?”
“For taking pity on me.” He looked at her as if she were mad.
“What is wrong with you?” he asked her. “Why do you need a wheelchair?”
She said nothing for a time; just looked out into the distance. They were on the hotel’s terrace; it was a balmy May evening and they could hear the cries of children down below in the city. The silence expanded but without awkwardness. He thought; “I love her, and want to be with her. Whatever is wrong with her; she will get better and we can be together forever.”
“Nobody really knows, the doctors don’t know, but I am wasting away; my joints ache and I can hardly walk anymore; it is gradual but speeding up. I will die in a year or two, or maybe I will have a bit longer. Please don’t worry, you won’t be stuck with me forever.”
He said nothing; somewhere he could smell a cigarette; definitely not an English one. He did not believe that she would die; she seemed more alive than him.
“Don’t worry about money; I am rich, and I will leave you a reward when I die.”
“I don’t care about that.”
“Of course you do. Wheel me in I am tired.”
He sat in his room which was adjacent to hers. He remembered his wife who had been one of his parishioners in London and who had fallen in love with him, but who had got bored of being a vicar’s wife and found entertainment and diversion in the bed of the Sunday School teacher. He had no idea of the affair until she told him about it, he was too caught up in his parish work which he took ever so seriously. He knew the marriage was unhappy but neither of them could articulate how they felt or knew what to do about it.
The lovers ran away eventually and left him. He thought he could cope and he thought that he did; but then he was offered a chaplain’s post in Naples and he jumped at it with alacrity. He picked up the language in no time; apparently he had Italian ancestry which might account for the speed with which he mastered it, and certainly since he had arrived there he felt at home. And now he had met Edith and for the first time in a very long time he felt happy.
They looked at paintings by Caravaggio in the churches of Naples; the Flagellation of Christ and the Seven Works of Mercy, amongst others.
“There is too much darkness. I am heart sick of shadows. I prefer light and the outside. My paintings have sunshine.”
“They are very sombre” Meredith agreed, “I prefer art with a bit of happiness and joy.” She held his hand briefly, he could feel the tight grip through her white glove, and he was reminded of her passion of two nights ago.
“One day I hope to be discovered; my paintings in galleries in London and especially in Paris. That is what I want more than anything. I could have gone to Paris but I just did not have the courage. I would love to meet the great Monet or Renoir.”
They went back to their hotel and she spent the rest of the day touching up a painting of a young boy they had talked to outside a monastery. Meredith had a bath and dozed. That evening they made love again; and she cried out, and for a moment felt at one with this man whose love for her, she could not understand. But then as the warmth deep inside her faded, the doubts appeared and she left him to clean herself and bade him sleep in his own bed.
When Edith awoke the next morning Meredith had disappeared. He normally knocked on her door at nine, and helped her down to breakfast, but he did not appear. She ate breakfast alone, and then spent the day in the hotel gardens sketching the distant view of Vesuvius. It was there he found her that evening.
“Where have you been?” Edith demanded.
“Sorry” he said, “I had to see someone, the English bishop in Naples.”
“I thought you had finished with all that.”
Meredith smiled, “Oh they like to keep tabs on us, even the disgraced former clergymen.”
The sun was still hot, and he could smell her scent. Her white hat cast a shadow on her thin nose and hid her eyes that were never still, always looking for the next thing.
“I needed you,” she told him.
“I won’t leave you again,” he said, and he didn’t.
They had come to London, overland and then by boat from Dieppe. She painted on the journey; on the boat, at the inns they stayed in, and on their days of rest of which they had many.
“I have friends in London in the art world; hopefully one can organise an exhibition for me.” She had said, “I've got enough paintings now, and once I am established in London, then on to Paris.”
The paintings followed them on their journey; there were so many. Something that had not been there before, had been created from within her and become solid. Meredith wondered at this; it was all so fragile how an idea, a fancy could become an object which people admire and buy.
Once in London she visited various galleries and friends in large houses; Meredith always in tow, a step behind her. She rarely used her wheelchair, as if willing herself to seem stronger and more independent. But when they got back to the rooms they had rented, she lay back on the settee and shuddered and often fell asleep or lightly dozed. They sometimes made love, but it was a gentle love where she felt comforted and safe, and so did he.
“Have you sold many paintings? Since you started painting I mean.” He asked her as they sat together in Green Park looking at the river.
“A few here and there. A couple in Naples and three in Rome before we met, and some of my parents’ friends bought some when I lived in London. My art is getting better; I am learning all the time. Maybe once we are tired of London, then we can go to Paris and stay there.”
He was very pleased that she assumed that he would go with her. He never asked her about their relationship; would she drop him when she got bored or found someone funnier?
“Unless you find something else to do in the meantime.” She added. She then got up from her bench and leant on the stone wall overlooking the river. She looked strong but was undoubtedly thin, it was more apparent than when she was naked in his arms. He could not imagine her dead though, she was too vital.
Eventually Edith managed to find someone to exhibit her pictures. A Mr. Thomas who owned a small but prestigious gallery in Dulwich and said that he loved her paintings. He organised an exhibition for her gallery, he said that it was an honour. Edith was clearly excited.
“I have never had anything like this before. People coming to see my pictures. Perhaps it will be that start of something. Something to stay alive for.”
“Aren’t I worth staying alive for?” Meredith asked.
“Of course, but that will fade. Passion, sex it is only accidental; art is the essential. I want my art to last forever.”
Thomas was a man who knew how to get publicity and on the opening night there was a large host of people, so that the gallery was crowded. Edith sat in a corner talking to all who ventured over. Every so often she would look at Meredith and catch his eye. She seemed tired but that just made her seem even more lovely, and there was definitely a glow about her. But he thought she had seemed happier when they were tramping the streets of Naples, or when they lay together in various inns on their way through Europe.
The gallery was light and the paintings were displayed well. It was true that many of the people who were there were talking to each other and gossiping as much as examining Edith’s art, but there were a fair few looking at the pictures intensely, and at least some of the conversations Meredith could hear were to do with the pictures on the walls. He wondered if this was the beginning of her success and fame, and he worried that she would leave him as a consequence.
He realised that he had never studied her paintings properly, or even paid them full attention; they were always there, that was all. But now he did so. The boy in front of the monastery, she had caught the different colours in his eyes, and the fear in them, and you could almost feel the hot sun even in rainy London on an Autumn evening. There was one of fish being sold in a market; he could hear the sound of the woman selling her wares; speaking in that deep southern Italian voice. There was light everywhere in her paintings, but the eye that painted was hard and unremitting, missing nothing. There was the poverty and bestiality as well as the beauty and sunlight.
That night they lay together.
“Your paintings are wonderful; really. I hadn’t realised.”
There was a silence; he was not sure if she was pleased by his compliment, or disappointed that he had not noticed before.
“If I did not think they were good, I wouldn’t bother with this. Would have stayed in England looking after my nephews.”
He kissed her, and they made love slowly and gently as if not wishing to damage what they had.
“So why were you defrocked? Why really?”
“I became a Mormon. I wanted lots of wives.”
“But you drink coffee, and where are all your wives?”
There were reviews of Edith’s exhibition in many of the newspapers; they were polite, she was a lady after all, but they were not laudatory. She had a few visitors to the rooms they were renting; a Member of Parliament who had apparently known her father, art critics from various journals, the poet Ezra Pound who was surprisingly gentle and polite and asked intelligent questions about her paintings and fellow artist Walter Sickert who looked uncomfortable, as if he had gone to the wrong address and did not know how to leave.
The exhibition closed after three weeks; she had sold a handful of her paintings, and after the opening night sparse numbers came to look at them. Despite Thomas’s positivity the exhibition had not been a success. Edith and Meredith went down to the gallery to supervise the packing of the remainder.
“I am going to send them to my sister Mary,” she told Meredith, “She has plenty of room, and she can look after them until I die.”
Normally when she mentioned dying he stopped her, but this time he looked at her. She was looking pale, and was sweating a lot. Their eyes met, and she saw what he saw and looked away hurriedly. He put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed it, feeling the bone which could so easily snap, but she did not respond.
She stopped painting now, but rather would sit in the National Gallery with paper and pencils and copy some of the drawings by Da Vinci and Durer. Meredith would help her set up her equipment and leave her and either go and grab a cup of tea and cake in a Lyons Teashop or look round the gallery himself; occasionally coming across her unexpectedly. People would look at what she was drawing, or try to engage her in conversation, but she ignored them. It was as if she were a different species from the well-dressed people around her, or from a different time.
He did not ask her why she had stopped painting outside, why she was sticking to copying pictures indoors. Perhaps it was the chill outside and she needed warmth; even in the gallery she wore a black jacket. It was September now, and England was becoming damp. And perhaps she was not inspired by the damp, smoggy London streets.
“Why don’t we go to Paris?” he suggested, “It is so much warmer, and you want to go there; it is where you belong.”
She smiled at him as if remembering. “Yes I would like that,” she told him, “very much.”
But when he tried to arrange it, she procrastinated.
“Don’t you want to go there?” he asked her.
“Perhaps one day; at the moment I don’t think I would survive the journey. If I could get there in a day it would be good. We should never have crossed the channel.”
They had not made love since the opening of the exhibition; it was as if she were conserving her energy. It was not a big thing; just a symptom of her tiredness. She would go to bed earlier, leaving him to read in his room or to look up old friends. But no matter how late he was returning, before he went to bed he would look into her bedroom and gaze at her face. Sometimes she would be awake and he would sit on her bed and tell her of all he had seen that night, and she would listen; looking into his eyes as if trying to capture everything he said.
She kept talking of going to her see her sisters Sarah and Mary. But in the end they came to her; turning up at their rooms, their cards brought in before them. Although Edith was the eldest of the three her two sisters looked older. Both had lighter colouring; Sarah was plump and seemed kind, but Mary had more of Edith’s intensity and seemed less eager to please.
Meredith was going to leave them alone, but Edith gave him a look which said please stay, so he did.
“Have you visited Papa and Mama’s grave?” asked Sarah.
“I will do before we leave.”
The two sisters nodded.
“We still go up every Sunday after chapel” Sarah added; “it is very peaceful, with trees around. In a quiet corner. You should come with us this Sunday.”
They all looked at Meredith as if he was the one to make the decision. And he nodded, hoping that was what Edith wanted.
That Sunday he and Edith sat in the small Congregationalist chapel that Sarah and her family attended. Sarah’s husband Samuel, an agreeable man who worked in the city, came with their two sons. Meredith rarely attended church now, and he paid little attention to the service, being more concerned about his companion. She had been awake all night sweating and shaking. He had assumed that she would not be able to come along but she was up and dressed before he was, albeit extremely pale and had seemed to have lost more weight overnight.
After the service they walked the short distance to Highgate cemetery. Meredith pushed Edith, who seemed so light he wondered if it would have made much difference if the chair had been empty. The grave stood in a corner, part of a private plot. They stood around in a semi-circle and Sarah’s sons laid flowers at the gravestone of their grandparents. Meredith could hear birds singing but also the sound of other feet and voices.
Sarah suggested they go back to her house for dinner but Edith was feeling ill and so she and Meredith made their way back to their rooms. As they sat drinking coffee later, she said to him.
“Don’t let me be buried there. I want somewhere quiet miles from anywhere. I don’t want anyone to visit me, and on the gravestone I just want my name and “Painter,” that is all. Please do that for me. I just don’t want fuss, and I don’t want my family visiting on Sunday afternoons after chapel to pay their respects to poor Aunt Edith along with my parents.”
He held her hand and squeezed it, but she flinched.
“Find me somewhere beautiful, where I can lie in peace, by a rock wall or under a tree.”
The visit to her parents’ grave was the last time she went out. Her friend and lover stayed by her side in their rooms; tending her and listening to her as she talked of getting well, of going to Paris and having her art finally recognised. Of walking the boulevards and drinking coffee and wine in cafés. Of being happy away from the damp and cold.
“Why were you really defrocked?” she asked him, “Tell me.”
“I was not defrocked; I resigned. I met somebody I love more than my god and my religion, and I want to spend my life serving her.”
“I haven’t much money,” she told him “I lied, I am sorry, but I wanted you by my side. All I have I leave to you, and there are my pictures which perhaps you can sell or exhibit. I am sorry.”
“Do you really think I was in this for the money?”
“No. But you have to live.”
Edith died three weeks later; quietly and holding Meredith’s hand. Her sisters wanted her buried in the same plot as her parents, but Meredith held firm; he knew a vicar with a church in Ware a few miles to the north of the city, which had a picturesque graveyard, and that is where Edith was buried. She lies under a grave which reads “Edith S-. Artist. Much loved”. The gravestone lies by a wall as she requested; hidden and quiet. It a very long time since anybody has visited it.
Nobody knew his name; he was just L’Anglais. He would sit in various cafés, in the Montmarte district of Paris, and drink coffee in the warm evenings. He was in his fifties and had been living in Paris for about fifteen years. The locals wondered if he would leave; the Germans were getting stronger and belligerent so that many English were departing, but he stayed, apparently unconcerned.
He taught at a number of language schools in Paris, and clearly made an effort with his dress. He had an air of genteel poverty about him and there was a sense that underneath his English reserve there was humour but also sadness. He would sometimes converse with the habitues of the cafes; getting them to talk about themselves. He liked to meet any artists he came across, and would listen for hours or watch them paint, and yet he rarely talked about himself. He frequented galleries, and could often be seen standing in front of a painting, pondering.
Marc, an art critic from L’Humanite began to talk to the English man; he was new to the job and new to Paris. Marc was polite and intelligent; he and L’Anglais became friends in a casual sort of way; rarely arranging to meet but rather bumping into each other at one of the usual cafes, particularly the Café Claude, or occasionally they would see each other at exhibitions. They often talked of art and who was the next big thing. It was a comfortable friendship, perhaps more English than European.
One warm April evening, out of the blue L’Anglais began to speak of an artist called Edith. It took awhile for Mark to realise that he was talking about a dead person.
“Would you like to see some of her pictures?”
Marc felt obliged to say yes; he was tired and it was hot, but it would be rude not to go. He finished off his coffee and followed his friend. He had never seen where the man lived. L’Anglais led him to a small rented apartment not far from the Café Claude. They walked up some stairs.
The first impression was that the room was just books and canvases. But then hidden in a corner he saw a small bed and there was a kitchen behind a screen. Marc went over and looked at the paintings; they were leaning against the walls and some looked weather beaten and the paint had faded. He wondered what he should say. He was not a great critic; had got the job more through bluff and native intelligence. They seemed okay; more reminiscent of the Impressionist craze which was rather old hat. They were lovely enough he supposed, and he liked the bright colours.
“Very beautiful,” he told a gratified Meredith.
“I want to have an exhibition; here in Paris. Is that possible? I have tried, asked various people but nobody can help me. You know people, you have influence, could you try?”
Marc shrugged his shoulders; “I will look,” he said “see what I can do. But you know war is coming?” He shrugged his shoulders slightly.
Meredith smiled “if you could just try; the pictures they are full of sun, perhaps what we need at the moment. She was a great artist.”
Marc had an appointment to see his fiancée so he soon left his friend. In fact Marc never saw L’Anglais again. On an impulse he joined up the following day, and by the following week he was in the North East of France preparing for the German invasion.
It was two years later that he came back to Paris. He looked much older and poorer, and he had a limp. There were German soldiers on the streets of Paris and the whole place had the dispirited atmosphere of a city under occupation. Marc’s visit to Meredith’s rooms had stayed with him during the two years and he felt guilty about not helping with his friend’s paintings, even though there was little he could have done with France under German control.
Marc visited Café Claude shortly after his return; there were a few faces that he recognised but Meredith wasn’t amongst them. Marc asked after him but nobody even remembered him, not even the proprietor; but then people were very ready to forget in those days and afterwards.
He remembered where Meredith had lived, and so after a cup of what purported to be coffee he made his way there. The concierge answered his knock; an old man who was wearing a suit. Of course he remembered L’Anglais; a true gentleman, but he had left suddenly; just failed to return one evening, over a year ago now.
“Perhaps he was arrested, taken away because he was English, or maybe he wanted to leave and had no money. I could not tell if he had taken clothes with him. His room was such a mess.”
“What about his paintings? Are they still there?”
The concierge smiled; “I spoke to my nephew; he knows something of art, he said that they were worthless. We burnt them to heat the rooms during the winter. We managed to sell the books though, more than paid the rent even in these times.”
“Have you heard anything about him since?” asked Marc, feeling indescribably sad and rather hating the concierge’s arrogant nephew.
“No; I suspect he is dead. But then when so many people die; what is one old Englishman?”
Marc said nothing, and walked away. In the distance he saw a couple; a tall thin man in black pushing a wheelchair with a beautiful lady in it. There was an easel attached to the chair, and paints. He caught the faintest sound of laughter; the sound of two people who were happy in each other’s company and needed nobody else. There was sunshine for a moment and the smell of vanilla in the air. And then they turned a corner and were gone.
Automatically make and receive recommendations as you read. Extend your experience through comments, sharing, connecting with authors and following readers with similar tastes. Reading becomes both personal and social.
The more you do, the better your experience! We'll improve our recommendations to you and others based on what you've enjoyed and followed. The more a work is liked or person followed, the more impact they have.
Set up a personal challenge to read more. Explore a new genre or author. Red Fez can help you discover more, keep track of everything you've read and broaden your horizons.