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The Ebony Tower-Short Stories - John Fowles, Page 3

John Fowles

  David had mentioned Pisanello, knowing it was safe ground and the recently discovered frescos at Mantua. Breasley had seen them in reproduction, seemed genuinely interested to hear a first-hand account of them and genuinely ignorant--David had not taken his warning very seriously--of the techniques involved. But David had hardly launched into the complexities of arricio, intonaco, sinopie and the rest before Breasley interrupted.

  'Freak dear gel, for God's sake stop reading that fucking book and listen.'

  She looked up, then put the paperback down and folded her arms.


  It was said to David, ignoring the old man--and with an unconcealed boredom: you're a drag, but if he insists.

  'And if you use that word, for Christ's sake sound as if you mean it.'

  'Didn't realize we were included.'


  'I was listening, anyway.'

  She had a faint Cockney accent, tired and brutalized.

  'Don't be so bloody insolent.'

  'I was.'


  She pulled a grimace, glanced back up at the Mouse. 'Hen-ree.' David smiled. 'What's the book?'

  'Dear boy, keep out of this. If you don't mind.' He leant forward, pointing a finger at the girl. 'Now no more. Learn something.'

  'Yes, Henry.'

  'My dear fellow, I'm so sorry. Do go on.'

  The little incident produced an unexpected reaction from the Mouse. She gave a surreptitious nod at David behind Breasley's back: whether to tell him that this was normal or to suggest he got on with it before a full-scale row developed was not clear. But as he did go on, he had the impression that she was listening with slightly more interest. She even asked a question, she evidently knew something about Pisanello. The old man must have talked about him.

  Soon afterwards Breasley stood up and invited David to come and see his 'work-room' in the buildings behind the garden. The girls did not move. As he followed Breasley out through an arched gate in the wall, David looked back and saw the thin brown figure in her black singlet pick up her book again. The old man winked at him as they strolled over the gravel towards the line of buildings to their left.

  'Always the same. Have the little bitches into your bed. Lose all sense of proportion.'

  'They're students?'

  'The Mouse. God knows what the other thinks she is.'

  But he clearly did not want to talk about them; as if they were mere moths round his candle, a pair of high-class groupies. He began explaining the conversions and changes he had made, what the buildings once were. They went through a doorway into the main studio, a barn whose upper floor had been removed. A long table littered with sketches and paper by the wide modern window looking north over the gravelled yard; a paints table, the familiar smells and paraphernalia; and dominating the space, at its far end, another of the Coëtminais series, about three-quarters completed--a twelve-by-six-foot canvas on an especially carpentered stand, with a set of movable steps in front to reach the top of the painting. It was a forest setting again, but with a central clearing, much more peopled than usual, less of the sub-aqueous feeling, under a first-class blue, almost a black, that managed to suggest both night and day, both heat and storm, a looming threat over the human component. There was this time an immediate echo (because one had learned to look for them) of the Breughel family; and even a faint selfecho, of the Moon-hunt in the main house. David smiled at the painter.

  'Are any clues being offered?'

  'Kermesse? Perhaps. Not sure yet.' The old man stared at his picture. 'She's playing coy. Waiting, don't you know.'

  'She seems very good indeed to me. Already.'

  'Why I have to have women round me. Sense of timing. Bleeding and all that. Learning when not to work. Nine parts of the game.' He looked at David. 'But you know all this. Painter yourself, what?'

  David took an inward breath and skated hastily over the thin ice; explaining about Beth, her sharing his studio at home, he knew what Breasley meant. The old man opened his hands, as if in agreement; and seemed amiably not interested in pursuing the matter of David's own work. He turned and sat on a stool by the bench at the window, then reached for a still life, a pencil drawing of some wild flowers: teaselheads and thistles lying scattered on a table. They were drawn with an impressive, if rather lifeless, accuracy.

  'The Mouse. Beginning of a hand, don't you think?'

  'Nice line.'

  Breasley nodded down towards the huge canvas. 'I let her help. The donkey-work.'

  David murmured, 'On that scale...

  'Clever girl, Williams. Don't let her fool you. Shouldn't make fun of her.' The old man stared down at the drawing. 'Deserves better.' Then, 'Couldn't do without her, really.'

  'I'm sure she's learning a lot.'

  'Know what people say. Old rake and all that. Man my age.' David smiled. 'Not any more.'

  But Breasley seemed not to hear.

  'Don't care a fart about that, never have. When you start using their minds.'

  And he began to talk about age, turned back towards the painting with David standing beside him, staring at it; how the imagination, the ability to conceive, didn't after all, as one had supposed in one's younger days, atrophy. What declined was the physical and psychological stamina--'like one's poor old John Thomas'--to execute. One had to have help there. He seemed ashamed to have to confess it.

  'Roman Charity. Know that thing? Old geezer sucking milk from some young biddy's tit. Often think of that.'

  'I can't believe it's so one-way as you suggest.' David pointed at the drawing of the flowers. 'You should see the kind of art education most of the kids are getting at home now.'

  'You think?'

  'I'm sure. Most of them can't even draw.'

  Breasley stroked his white hair; again he seemed almost touchingly boyish, lacking in confidence. And David felt himself being seduced by this shyer yet franker being behind the language and the outward manner; who apparently had decided to trust him.

  'Ought to send her packing. Haven't the guts.'

  'Isn't that up to her?'

  'She didn't say anything? When you came?'

  'She gave a very good imitation of a guardiau angel.'

  'Come home to roost.'

  It was said with a hint of sardonic gloom; and remained cryptic, for the old man stood up with a sudden return of energy and a brief touch, as if of apology, on David's arm.

  'To hell with it. Come to grill me, what?'

  David asked about the preliminary stages to the painting.

  'Trial and error. Draw a lot. See.'

  He led David to the far end of the bench. The work-sketches were produced with the same odd mixture of timidity and assertiveness he had shown in talking about the girl--as if he both feared criticism and would suspect its absence.

  This new painting, it seemed, had sprung from a very dim recollection of early childhood; of a visit to a fair, he was no longer sure where, he had been five or six, had been longing for the treat, had taken an intense pleasure in it, could still recall this overwhelming wanting--the memory seemed dense with desire--to experience each tent and stall, see everything, taste everything. And then a thunderstorm, which must have been apparent before to all the adults, but which for some reason came to him as a shock and a surprise, a dreadful disappointment. All the outward indications of the fair theme had progressively disappeared through the working sketches, much more elaborate and varied than David had expected, and were completely exorcized from the final imago. It was rather as if a clumsy literalness, a conceptual correlative of the way the old man spoke, had to be slowly exterminated by constant recomposition and refinement away from the verbal. But the story explained the strange inwardness, the lit oblivion of the central scene of the painting. The metaphysical parallels, small planets of light in infinite nights and all the rest, had remained perhaps a fraction too obvious. It was all a shade too darkly Olympian; put in words, something of a pessimistic truism about the human cond
ition. But the tone, the mood, the force of the statement carried conviction--and more than enough to overcome any personal prejudice David felt against overt literary content in painting.

  The talk broadened out, David managed to lead the old fellow back further into his past, to his life in France in the 'twenties, his friendships with Braque and Matthew Smith. Breasley's veneration for the former was long on the record, but he apparently had to make sure that David knew it. The difference between Braque and Picasso, Matisse 'and crew' was between a great man and great boys.

  'They knew it. He knew it. Everyone but the bloody world in general knows it.'

  David did not argue. Picasso's name had been actually pronounced as 'pick-arsehole'. But in general the obscenities were reduced as they talked. The disingenuous mask of ignorance slipped, and the face of the old cosmopolitan that lay beneath began to show. David began to suspect he was dealing with a paper tiger; or certainly with one still living in a world before he himself was born. The occasional hint of aggression was based on such ludicrously oldfashioned notions of what shocked people, what red rags could infuriate them; to reverse the simile, it was rather like playing matador to a blind bull. Only the pompous fool could let himself be caught on such obvious horns.

  They strolled back to the house just before six. Once again the two girls had disappeared. Breasley took him round the ground-floor room to look at the work there. There were anecdotes, some peremptory declarations of affection. One famous name got a black mark for being slick, 'too damn' easy'.

  'Dozen-a-day man, don't you know. Bone lazy. That's what saved him. Fastidious my arse.'

  And there was more frankness, when David asked what he had looked for when he bought.

  'Value for money, dear boy. Insurance. Never thought my own stuff would come to much. Now how about this fellow?'

  They had stopped before the little flower painting David had tentatively ascribed to Matisse. David shook his head.

  'Painted rubbish ever since.'

  It was hardly a clue, in present company. David smiled.

  'I'm stumped.'

  'Miró. Done in 1915.'

  'Good God.'


  And he shook his head, as over the grave of someone who had died in the flower of his youth.

  There were other small treasures David had failed to identify: a Sérusier, a remarkable Gauguinesque landscape by Filiger but when they got to the far corner of the room, Breasley opened a door. mom 'Got a greater artist out here, Williams. You'll see. Dinner tonight.'

  The door led into a kitchen: a lantern-jawed grey-haired man sitting at a table and peeling vegetables, an elderly woman who turned from a modern cooking-range and smiled. David was introduced: Jean-Pierre and Mathilde, who ran the house and garden. There was also a large Alsatian, which the man quietened as it stood. It was called Macmillan, to rhyme with Villon; because, Breasley explained with a sniff, it was an 'old impostor'. He spoke French for the first time, a strangely different voice, completely fluent and native-sounding to David's ears; but English was probably more the foreign language now. He gathered the dinner menu was being discussed. Breasley lifted pot-lids on the stove and sniffed, like some officer doing mess rounds. Then a pike was produced and examined, some story was being told by the man, apparently he had caught it that afternoon, the dog had been with him and tried to attack it when the fish was landed. Breasley bent and wagged a finger over the dog's head, he was to save his teeth for thieves; David was glad he had chanced to arrive when the animal was off the premises. He had the impression that this evening visit to the kitchen was something of a ritual. Its domesticity and familiarity, the tranquil French couple, made a reassuring contrast with the vaguely perverse note the presence of the two girls had introduced into his visit.

  Back in the long room, Breasley told David to make himself at home. He had some letters to write. They would meet there again for an aperitif at half-past seven.

  'You're not too formal, I hope?'.

  Freedom House, dear boy. Stark naked, if you like. He winked. 'Gels won't mind.'

  David grinned. 'Right.'

  The old man raised a hand and walked to the stairs. Halfway up he turned and spoke back down the room.

  'World isn't all bare bubs, eh what?'

  A discreet minute or two later David also went upstairs. He sat on the chaise-longue, writing notes. It was a shame one couldn't quote the old boy direct; but those first two hours had proved very useful; and there must be more to come. After a while he went and lay on the bed, hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. It was very warm, airless, though he had opened the shutters. Strange, he had experienced a little tinge of personal disappointment, finally, with Breasley; a little too much posing and wicked old sham for the end-product, too great a dissonance between the man and his art; and illogically there loitered, even though David had wanted to keep off the subject, a tiny hurtness that he had been asked nothing about his own work. It was absurd, of course; merely a reaction to so blatant a monomania; and not without an element of envy... this rather gorgeous old house, the studio set-up, the collection, the faintly gamy ambiguity that permeated the place after predictable old Beth and the kids at home; the remoteness of it, the foreignness, the curious flashes of honesty, a patina... fecundity, his whole day through that countryside, so many ripening apples.

  But he was being unfair to Beth, who after all had been more responsible than himself in the frantic last-hour discussions on Monday morning, when Sandy's chicken-pox had moved from threatened to certain. Her mother was already there with them, ready to take over when they left, and perfectly able to cope and willing to do so, she took David's side. It was just Beth's conscience, that old streak of obstinacy in her--and a little hangover of guilt, he suspected, from her brief mutiny against the tyranny of children soon after Louise was born. Even if there weren't complications, she insisted, she wouldn't be happy not knowing; and David must go, after all it was his work. Their intended week in the Ardche, after Brittany, could still take place. They had finally agreed, when he set off for Southampton on the Monday evening, that unless there was a telegram at Coëtminais to the contrary on Thursday, she would be in Paris the next day. He had rushed out and booked the flight before he left; and brought flowers and a bottle of champagne home with the ticket. That had gained him a good mark from his mother in-law. Beth had been drier. In his first frustration he had rather too obviously put his hatred of travelling alone, especially on this journey, above responsible parenthood. But her last words had been, 'I'll forgive you in Paris.'

  A door by the top of the staircase, the one Breasley had gone into, opened briefly and he heard the sound of music, a radio or a record, it seemed like Vivaldi. Then silence again. He felt like a visitor; peripheral, not really wanted. His mind drifted back to the two girls. Of course one wasn't shocked that they went to bed with the old man; whatever one did with old men. Presumably they were well paid for their services, both literally and figuratively; they must know the kind of prices his work fetched now, let alone what the collection would be worth at auction. In some nagging way their presence irritated David. They must be after something, exploiting the old man's weaknesses. They were like a screen. He sensed a secret they did not want him to know.

  He wished Beth were there. She was always less afraid of offending people, more immediate; and she could have got so much more out of the girls than he ever would.

  He was glad he had finally decided to dress up a little--the jeans suit, a shirt and scarf when he went downstairs. The Mouse was in a creamy high-necked blouse and a long russet skirt, laying the long wooden table at the far end of the room. There were lamps on, the first dusk outside. David saw the back of Breasley's white head in a sofa by the fireplace; and then, as he came down the room, the Freak's frizzed mop leaning against his shoulder. She was slumped back, her feet on a stool, reading aloud in French from some magazine. She wore a bare-shouldered black satin dress with a flounced bottom, a
Spanish line about it. The hand of the old man's encircling arm had slipped beneath the fabric and lay on the girl's left breast. He did not move it away when he saw David, merely raised his free hand and pointed down the room towards the Mouse.

  'Have a drink, dear boy.'

  He too had changed; a pale summer coat, a white shirt, a purple bow tie. The girl twisted her head and slipped David a look up, charcoal eyes, intense red mouth, a thin grimace, then began slowly translating what she had read into English. David smiled, hesitated an awkward moment, then went on to where the Mouse moved round the table. She looked coolly up from her work.

  'What can I get you?'

  'Whatever you're having.'

  'Noilly Prat?'


  She went to an old carved armoire beside the door through to the kitchen; glasses, an array of bottles, a bowl of ice.



  He took his glass, and watched her pour a similar one for herself; then some fizzy fruit-drink; and finally a whisky poured with care, dispensed, she even held the glass up and lined two fingers to check the level of the ration before topping it with an equal amount of soda. Her blouse, made of some loose-woven fabric the colour of old lace that allowed minute interstices of bare flesh, was long-sleeved and tight-wristed, high-necked, Edwardian in style; rather prim and demure except, as he soon realized, that nothing was worn underneath it. He watched her face in profile as she served the drinks; its quiet composure. Her movements were deft, at home in this domestic role. David wondered why the old man had to make fun of her; taste and intelligence seemed after all much more plausible than silliness. Nor did there seem anything Pre-Raphaelite about her now; she was simply a rather attractive bit of 'seventies bird and a good deal easier to relate to than the absurd sex-doll on the sofa, who was reading French again. Now and then the old man would correct her pronunciation and she would repeat a word. The Mouse took the drinks down to them, then came back to where David waited. He passed her her own glass, and was aware of a very straight pair of eyes; suspiciously as if she had half read his thoughts. Then she silently raised the glass to him and sipped. One hand went to hold an elbow. And at last she smiled.