Yesterday's Magazette

13 – The Eyes of Marianne Grey

The Eyes Of Marianne Grey

(Above: Portrait of a woman courtesy of The Rogers Harrison House B&B in Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON, Canada)

Written and Photographed By Richard Ong

She stood in the hall of my studio late one night – a stranger dressed in black, dripping puddles of rain water around her feet. My door flapped and banged against the wall. The chill I felt might had been the wind though I could never be sure.

It took me some moments to come to my senses, to finally let her in and shut the door behind her soaking back.

“Damn it, mademoiselle! You’ll catch your chill of death. Come.. come sit by the fire and I’ll fetch you some dry clothes to wear.”

She nodded and turned to look at the glowing embers of the hearth. When she failed to move, I mistook her to be in shock and therefore unable to respond to my voice. I took her gently by the elbow and had her seated on the chair by the fire.

I strode towards the bedroom and ransacked the chest box for one of my mother’s dressing gowns. I walked back towards the studio only to find her standing with her back towards me, her arms outstretched towards the fire, letting the heat drive the dampness from her skin.

“Here… put this on.” I threw the gown at her feet.

She looked up and said, “I don’t need it.” Then she turned and rubbed some heat onto her hands, ignoring the dry clothing at her feet.

“Suit yourself,” I said, forcing back the anger that threatened to erupt from my lips. I snatched the gown from the floor and turned to leave the room when a wave of intense feeling hit me. I could not understand the cause of these emotions, but I suddenly felt drawn to her eyes. I turned around and saw a sadness that wasn’t there before.

I sensed a great burden lift from her shoulders and envelope me in a fierce embrace. I felt a sudden shortness in my breath and fought the wave of hysteria that threatened to drive me mad with despair.

Then she smiled. A sad smile. It was the only smile I would ever see her make. Yet it was a wonderful smile, filled with hope and unfulfilled promises. It told a tale filled with yearning and love. It held a beauty buried beneath a mountain of despair and melancholy. It was the briefest of moments begging to be captured and frozen for all time had I but the power to do so. Perhaps, in a way, I did at that.

“Can I paint you?” I blurted out, not fully realizing what I was asking.

“Sir?” The smile was now gone, but the need to capture its essence remained. An artist, especially a poor one such as myself, desperately starved of those moments when the soul was driven with an overwhelming need to create, to nurture his creation and never to deny a moment when it comes. I half-expected her to be outraged at my brazen manner or to chastise me with a litany of unrestrained words. However, she said nothing else after that.

I attributed her silence to nothing more than simple ignorance combined with whatever kind of shock that brought her rain-drenched form at my doorstep. “I meant to say, mademoiselle, that if I may be so bold as to request your consent in sitting in for me as my model tonight.”

I carelessly swept the lamp to throw some illumination around the room – over a dusty collection of half-painted oil on canvas. I winced as the light from the lamp betrayed a toppled can of red and an overturned palette drenching the floorboards and scattered brushes about.

“You’re an artist?”

“Of a sort,” was my half-hearted reply. “At least I’d like to think I was.”

“And now?” Her tilted head indicated the unfinished portrait of a woman painted in a saturation of green, red and blue. I could almost picture her in her favourite spring dress as if it was yesterday.

I shook my head and said, “It is nothing. An artist’s whimsy, nothing more.”

“Nothing more.”

“Yes. Look, lass, forget about what I just said. But you do need to get out of those clothes.”

“It is dry.”

“But…”

“I will pose for you.” She turned around and under the silhouetted glow of the fire, her face seemed more melancholy and tired, yet still determined. “But you will paint me as I am. You must render me as you see me now. You must never exaggerate beyond the truth. What your heart knows you must do or you will surely fail … as you’ve done so many times before since you lost her.” She nodded towards the mottled canvases of unfinished images of people I barely knew, except one. Her green, red and blue spring dress was still livid in my mind’s eye.

I was thoroughly shocked and couldn’t say a word. My throat was suddenly hoarse and dry yet the words came unbidden. “H-how did you know? Marianne was the kindest and most thoughtful woman I’ve ever known. I would have given these all up for her. All she had to do was ask.”

“Would you, though?” Her eyes were unflinching and burned with an intensity as she slowly walked towards me. “Would you really have given this all up? You were born an artist. This was your passion, your joy, your unrequited love. Would you deny your soul its need to create if she were but to ask?”

“Yes! In a moment’s notice, I would.”

“And throw away everything you’ve ever lived for?”

“If it would have prevented her from dying, yes, without hesitation.”

“Then you are a fool.”

“W-what?”

“A fool.” Her brown eyes burned with spirited intensity. I did not realize how young she was till I saw her clearer in the light of the fire. The locks of her light brown hair fell listlessly over her eyes even as she tried in vain to sweep them over with her left hand. “She would have left you long before her time had come had you been less than truthful about yourself. How dare you belittle her sensibility and her sacrifice.”

I was so flabbergasted by her unsolicited outburst that for some moments I did not realize that my mouth was open nor did I care at the time how long I had been staring at her. I blinked back my surprise as I saw her lips draw thin once more. She was, as before, the very image of a young woman who had so recently come out of the cold.

“Paint me,” she said.

My mind was still reeling from the revelation of her intimate knowledge of my personal life that her words did not immediately register in my consciousness.

“Sir, you know you must paint me.”

“I cannot,” was my muted reply; yet my own body betrayed me as I found myself walking towards where the discarded palette lay upside down on the floor. Before I realized what I was doing, I had already picked up a brush and was vigorously mixing up shades of brown and black on the palette and ripping out a fresh new canvas to lay onto the stand. In moments, I was immersed in a feverish frenzy, vigorously sketching out the soft lines of her face, the shadows around her eyes and the long arch of her eyebrows. The thin line of her lips was fuller in my mind’s eye. Like Marianne’s.

“I can’t do this.” My hands dropped onto my side and the brush slipped from my trembling fingers, hitting the floor almost at the same time the palette thudded and bounced off the timber. I suddenly found myself overwhelmed by a torrent of feelings that I had to turn away in shame and sank onto a stool before my manliness was completely stripped away in front of this strange woman.

I was overcome by a violent heaving that I could not utter a word for quite some time. Finally, I resolved to maintain a modicum of control and I furiously wiped the tears with the sleeve of my shirt.

“Forgive me. Forgive an old man’s weakness for it is all that I have left. Even my hands have failed me, can’t you see?”

“No.” The sudden softness of her voice belied the youthfulness of her face. She held my trembling hands to hers, ice-cold under the warmth of her fire. She held them firmly with surprising strength till my spasm stopped. “How long has it been since you last painted?”

In spite of the roaring fire in the hearth, my breath came out in puffs of ice-cold air. “Too long. Too long since Marianne was taken from me.” I trembled once more, but she held my hands firmly until her warmth subsided the chill in my soul.

“Tell me about her.”

“Why? You seem to already know so much about my wife yet I know nothing of you. Who are you? Where did you come from? Why do you persist in tormenting me so?”

Shhh.” She sealed my lips with a gentle touch of her finger. “Who I am and where I came from are not important at this time. I wish to know more about Marianne. I want you to remember and tell me in your own words how you’ve missed her. Tell me, good sir. Tell me the truth.” When she finally let go of my hands, I found myself restored somewhat, if not absolved of my grief. And so it was that a middle-aged man suddenly found himself confessing to a strange young woman the story of how he met and captured the heart of his partner in life.

I was once a young man who believed I could live out the rest of my days painting and indulging in my own creativity, not caring whether the rest of the world lived or died around me. My works of art, though bold and daring, depicted the faceless images of people flat and devoid of life other than the pretentious and garish actions that they seem to portray. Little did I realize till I met Marianne, how dull and unimaginative my work had become. People stopped buying my work and I fell onto hard times as my name began its downward spiral into gross anonymity.

Marianne, however, changed all that. She came from a wealthy and well-connected family. It didn’t matter at all even if she was the daughter of the next-door shoe cobbler. All I knew was that the moment I met her by the pond where I sketched, we were destined to be together. I had found my muse at last and she was utterly beautiful. Those brown eyes …

Those… brown… eyes… Mon Dieu. I quickly turned my head hoping to hide my embarrassment.

“Forgive me, mademoiselle, for staring. I did not mean to be so rude. It’s just that … that you reminded me so much of” … I dismissed her with a hand gesture. “It is nothing. Nothing at all.”

“You started painting differently since you saw her. Your work, your art… took on a very different path… a path that was full of life and joy without compromise. People came and bought your portraits. Some even begged to pose for you, even though you would have willingly done so without being asked. She came into your life and sated the emptiness in your soul. You were never truly alive till you met her. This is the truth, is it not?”

Though her lips moved, her voice seemed to echo from a distance. I felt a warm wetness in my eyes and quickly averted my face hoping to lose my guilt in the shadows of the room. Like a phantom, her hand emerged from the dark and gently turned my face towards her.

“It’s all right. I understand.  I forgive you and I understand.”

How could she, this strange young woman? She was probably no more than a babe when Marianne was struck down by the plague. The town was so paralyzed by the epidemic that the border city mayors agreed to completely quarantine the entire population from the rest of the province for miles on end. The local doctor, himself weakened by the disease, was baffled by the swiftness and widespread infection that ravaged the locale populace.

Everything seemed hopeless and all they could do was wait. When it was finally over, one quarter of the town’s population had been taken, including his beloved wife Marianne. Her family blamed him for diverting her from a promising career as the wife of a diplomat to live in squalor with a artist who barely made enough for them to get by. It would have been better for all had she not met him that day, so many years ago by the pond.

“That is a lie! You loved her and she loved you. Had you met under any other circumstance, the results would still be the same. Time is immutable, but more so is the love that brought you together. You could no more change the course of the sea than divert the tides of your love. Your work was nurtured and brought to life by your love for each other.  That love still exists in your heart, even though it is buried under a mountain of guilt and self-pity that you tried so hard to build. I saw that moment, that spark of life, a glimpse of that love the moment you picked up the chalk and started work on my portrait.

“I knew right away that you hadn’t lost your gift – the gift that her coming brought into your life. If you ever cared for her, if you ever cared for the time that you shared with each other… please, sir, do not let it have been in vain. I forgive you for she cannot. But most important of all, you must forgive yourself. Let the flame of your love for one another light anew. Let it guide your hand right now. Here is the brush. Feel the strength of its handle… become a part of it once more. Now, good sir, you must paint. Paint me with a passion as you’ve never painted before in your life!”

Her eyes grew bright and I felt my hand grow steadier. The weight of the brush felt true in my grip. I saw my hand move – touch stroke upon stroke, brown on black, lips that were full drawn thin across the face with but the hint of a smile. The intensity was gone from those soft brown eyes, yet the strength in them remained, a reminder of how life tempered with bitterness could still recapture a soul. I worked with a flourish I’ve never known possible since Marianne passed away. I had found my muse once more.

Who was she? Where did she come from? Why did she choose to be a part of my life that night? Would she have stayed with me had I asked?

“Does it matter?” she asked and her eyes bore all the love in this world.

No. I suppose it never did at all.

Vol. 36 No. 4 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Winter – 2009-2010

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