Gary Inbinder, The Flower to the Painter
The Flower to the Painter
Publisher: Fireship Press, June 23, 2011
Available at: Amazon.com
Length: 290 pp.
The masterpiece should appear as the flower to the painter — perfect in its bud as in its bloom — with no reason to explain its presence — no mission to fulfill... — James McNeill Whistler
“Dear Marcia, you have surely gotten yourself in a pickle.” My best friend, Daisy Brewster, smiled prettily like a Dresden figurine. She wore too much paint and powder, frills and flounces, and she held her teacup with her little finger extended coquettishly, as though I were one of her young suitors. Silly girl, I thought, but I needed her help badly; I was truly in a pickle, as she had said.
“Oh Daisy, you have no idea what I have endured as governess in the Donaldson household. The girl was bad enough and the boy was a little terror, but they were the least of my troubles.” I stopped for emphasis, and choked back a sob. “My dearest friend, it is too shameful to relate.” A tear ran down my right cheek; I dabbed at the moisture with a lace handkerchief.
I had already informed my friend that the “shameful thing” was Mr. Donaldson’s improper attentions and handling of my person, and I had made him out to be a monster of depravity. Some might think that an exaggeration, but there was more than a grain of truth in it, for when in proximity to me the man could be free with his hands, and his wife had noticed.
Donaldson’s abuse culminated in an incident I recall with revulsion. It occurred following a long, difficult day trying to teach drawing to children who preferred playing cowboys and Indians to art. Exhausted, I was climbing the dark, narrow staircase to my third floor room. About halfway up the stairs, Donaldson emerged from the shadows above me. His sudden appearance startled me; I gave a little cry.
He clapped a sweaty palm over my lips, then pressed his bulk against me, pinning me to the wall like a trapped animal. I could not make out his features, but his hot breath reeked of an after-dinner brandy and cigars. His left hand groped my hip while the right continued covering my mouth. His face touched mine; the stubble scratched my cheek. He nibbled an earlobe, and then whispered: “Marcia, I could make things so much easier for you — if only you’d be nice to me.”
Terrified, I bit his hand; he yelped and recoiled. Summoning all my strength, I shoved him aside. Surprised and off balance, he tripped and tumbled to the second floor landing, near the master bedroom, where he lay groaning. I ran upstairs, then stopped, turned and looked down over the railing. Dim yellow light streamed from a half-opened door. The door creaked on its hinges and out came Mrs. Donaldson in her nightdress and cap. She bent down, helping her husband to his feet. Then, with her arm round his shoulder, she turned her head toward me and glared. I’ll never forget that look. Her eyes stabbed me like a pair of envenomed daggers.
Despite feelings of shame and resentment, my financial situation was such that I might have endured his backstairs groping to keep my job. But his jealous spouse prevailed, and Mr. Donaldson ostensibly sacked me for my failure to govern his ungovernable brats. Swallowing my pride, I revealed the incident for my friend’s benefit as well as my own. It would give Daisy something to gossip about and make her more sympathetic and biddable to my case. Moreover, her wagging tongue would surely settle Mr. and Mrs. D’s hash among our expatriate American society and that would be the Donaldsons’ comeuppance for their shabby treatment of me.
She put down her fine china cup, and touched my hand softly. “Please don’t cry. You are my dearest friend and like a sister to me. Aunt Kingsford and I will take you up and see about getting you another position straight away. Have you enough money for passage to America?”
I had enough put by for second cabin to New York, with a little left over. However, since my late father had nearly bankrupted our family in a stock swindle there was no home to which I could return. My mother had died of typhoid fever when I was five and my only sibling, Mark, had fallen at Gettysburg when I was thirteen. Father was not the same after Mark’s death; he had succumbed to melancholia, his good fortune abandoned him and he passed on leaving me, an unmarried and almost penniless young woman, to fend for myself at twenty-two. I had some relatives out west in St. Louis, but I had no contact with them, and there is nothing more pathetic than a poor spinster living off her relations. In such circumstances, my prospects would be dismal indeed. Therefore, I told a fib — or perhaps, a half-truth. “I’m afraid not, Daisy. I have not a sou to my name. What shall I do?”
“There, there, you must not worry. We will set you up, all right. And you must get some smarter clothes. Have you nothing to wear for the season?”
I had made myself look more than ordinarily shabby with an out of fashion dress, the better to gain my friend’s sympathy. I saw in Daisy’s trusting cornflower eyes the opportunity of a new wardrobe. I lowered my head, covered my face with my hands and sobbed. “My dearest friend, my condition is deplorable. It is too humiliating to bear.”
I spied Daisy through the chinks of my fingers as she got up and walked to my side. She fairly lifted me into her arms and clasped me to her soft, fragrant bosom. “Poor Marcia, you shall be safe with us, so please don’t cry.”
I sniffled, inhaling her perfume, fresh as a flower-bed after a spring shower. We stood on the marble balcony of her aunt’s rented palazzo. Above us, a bright yellow awning fluttered crisply in the mild spring breeze. Looking over Daisy’s shoulder, I could see the muddy Arno running swiftly beneath the Ponte Vecchio. Birds chirped on branches in the nearby walled garden, and a few warblers ascended the sky and circled out over the river. I kissed Daisy, and whispered, “You are such a dear, caring for your pauvre petite Américaine.” She hugged me and I smiled, thinking myself secure at least for the present.
Daisy had a trunk full of new Paris gowns from Worth and her generosity was impressive. She gave me three silk dresses in the princess style and had an expert Italian seamstress come in to alter them. Daisy and I were about the same height but she was much fuller in both the bosom and hips; nevertheless, the expertly altered dresses flattered my boyish figure. Thus accoutered, I admired myself in a three-way mirror and Daisy gushed, “You look ever so smart, Marcia. I believe the slender line without a bustle suits you better than it does me, and you hardly need a corset.”
I felt like a weary traveler who, after many hardships, had at long last found shelter. I smiled, turned and patted her soft cheek. “Oh Daisy, you are such a dear to flatter me so. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”
She embraced me while averring that sharing her treasures with her dearest friend and old playmate was a pleasure to her and that my very presence was all the remuneration she wanted. I took note of that, since my companionship and gratitude were surely all that she was ever likely to receive from me.
One evening about three weeks after I had moved to the palazzo, I sat in the drawing room with Daisy and her aunt, Mrs. Kingsford. Aunt Kingsford was a formidable but jolly widow of about fifty. By jolly, I mean that she was not Queen Victoria draped in black bombazine, and she enjoyed traipsing about Europe with her favorite niece in tow on the fifty-thousand a year left to her by the late Mr. K. She was formidable in that she expressed herself freely, in Yankee fashion, while affecting some continental manners, such as peering through her lorgnette and calling me “Miss Mar-see-uh,” which made me want to giggle.
“You are looking well, Miss Mar-see-uh, and I declare the new fashion suits you.”
“Why thank you kindly, Aunt Kingsford,” I replied. She insisted that I call her “Aunt Kingsford,” and for her much needed friendship, I happily obliged.
“Aunty, Marcia does indeed look fetching in her new outfit, and she is so clever,” Daisy chimed in. “Do you think that we could find her a suitable young man?” I glanced at Daisy. I doubted that any young man in Florence, suitable or otherwise, would make an honorable offer to a penniless American girl.
Aunt Kingsford lowered her lorgnette and looked in the direction of a black and gold French clock ticking loudly on the marble mantelpiece. She spent a moment in thought, and then eyed me with a sympathetic smile. “I am afraid I have enough trouble fending off the fortune hunters who swarm to our Daisy like bees to a flower. In your case, Miss Mar-see-uh, I think that I would be hard pressed to find anyone suitable, despite your considerable charms.” I had supposed that my charms were a pretty face, a boyish figure and a quick and flattering tongue. Those qualities could lure a cad like Mr. Donaldson, if that had been my intention, but they might not suffice to gain a ring. “Please, dear aunt, you must not concern yourself with me. You and Daisy have already overwhelmed me with kindness. Another position as governess to a respectable family is all I want, until I can earn enough for my passage home.”
Aunt Kingsford raised her eyebrows and her lorgnette. “Do you truly seek another such position after receiving Mr. Donaldson’s abuse?”
Mrs. Kingsford’s unexpected reference to my recent misfortune cut me like a knife. It was as though she implied that I had led him on and might do the same with another employer. In an instant, my fresh sense of warmth and security vanished. At the first sign of my tears, Daisy raced to my side and took me into her arms. She turned to her aunt with a frown. “Oh, Aunty, how could you?” We huddled together on the sofa in sisterly commiseration, and my flowing eyes wet her bosom.
“Well, well you girls, that is enough. I am sorry, and we shall speak no more of that unpleasantness.” I sniffled, blew my nose and gave the elder woman a faint smile. She continued. “I know of your family and its misfortunes, Miss Mar-see-uh. You come from good Hartford people, and you are now amongst your sympathetic compatriots. You need not worry yourself about another position, and I most certainly will not let my niece’s best friend go to ruin in a foreign land.”
I got up from the sofa and ran to kneel before my benefactress. I grasped her plump, be-ringed hand and wet it with my lips and my tears. “You and Daisy are too good to me, dear Aunt Kingsford. I do not deserve such kindness.” Perhaps I had made too much of this incident, but having found a refuge so recently, I feared losing what I had gained.
She murmured, “There, there now,” and stroked my hair as if I were her lap dog.
That evening, Daisy let me sleep in her bed to comfort me. The bedclothes were warm, clean and soft and smelled of sweet lavender, as did Daisy’s nightdress. She held me, and whispered, “You must not fret so, dear Marcia. Aunty and I will care for you.”
I held her hand and nuzzled against her warm shoulder. I relied upon Daisy and her aunt to save me from a world of poverty and degradation filled with men like Mr. Donaldson, or worse. “I must not impose upon you for too long, dearest friend,” I sighed, “but this poor orphan is so grateful for your sympathy.”
“Hush, now,” she replied. She held me close, and we slept in each other’s arms.
The weather remained fair and we breakfasted in the atrium to take advantage of the pleasantly cool, fresh air and natural golden light that streamed in through the open ceiling. Automata-like servants emerged from the loggia, their heels clicking on the marble checkerboard flooring; they saw to our needs and then dissolved in the shadows as if they were vanishing objects in some illusionist’s trick. I picked at my kipper, having little taste for the smoked fish. Moreover, there was something off-putting and accusatory about the herring’s eye.
“You have not much appetite this morning, Miss Mar-see-uh?”
I turned my attention from the fish-eye to Mrs. Kingsford. “Thank you for your concern, Aunt Kingsford. I am satisfied with my coffee and brioche.”
“Coffee and brioche seem hardly a fitting and proper breakfast for a healthy young woman. It is more like the light repast of a Parisian demimondaine taken before dressing to receive her first gentleman caller. One might even add a cigarette for the full effect.” Mrs. Kingsford smiled, and added, “Not that I would compare our dear Miss Mar-see-uh to such a woman.” Daisy put down her knife and fork, glanced at me and giggled. I believe I blushed. Mrs. Kingsford seemed to take pleasure in teasing us, and I had learned not to take her implications of moral laxity too seriously. She continued: “Now take our Daisy here. She always eats with good appetite; when we were in Surrey, all the gentry remarked upon it.”
“Aunt Kingsford,” Daisy interjected, “that was at the hunter’s breakfast. I merely fortified myself for the vigorous exercise.”
“Yes, my dear, and the English gentry also remarked upon your riding.” Turning to me, she observed: “As you probably know, our Daisy sits well in the saddle. She outrode the most accomplished Surrey gentlewomen and many of the gentlemen as well.”
“Indeed, Aunt Kingsford, Daisy was by far the best rider at school.” After saying this, I looked down at my hands, for I may have blurted out an unintended double entendre. Fortunately, neither Daisy nor her aunt seemed to notice.
“You see, Daisy,” Mrs. Kingsford expostulated, “everyone recognizes your qualities. You have health, beauty and wealth, yet you are past twenty-four and still un-wed. It simply will not do.”
Daisy’s face reddened. “My dear aunty, surely that is not all my fault. You have discouraged many gentlemen here in Europe.”
“I certainly did not discourage any gentleman, as you put it.”
“What of the Count de Beaumont?” Daisy followed this with a pout, and I observed the exchange with amused interest.
“The Count de Beaumont was certainly no suitable gentleman, Miss, and he had nothing but a handsome face, figure, fine wardrobe, polished manners and sharp wit to recommend him. Otherwise, he was a Catholic of dubious ancestry and fortune.” Mrs. Kingsford turned to me, as if to enlist my support. “One must be careful with these Continental barons and counts that inhabit a social sphere where every sort of Gypsy and Jew has managed to gain a title.” I affected a sad smile in response, but prudently kept my mouth shut.
Poor Daisy was almost in tears. “Henri was not like that at all, aunt. He professed his love sincerely, and would have gladly changed his religion for me.”
Mrs. Kingsford replied in a moderate and mollifying tone. “My dear, you are so innocent and you know nothing of the world. I have only acted for your benefit. You will return to America soon, and I am sure you will make a good match there. Moreover, if you want a title, look to the English. They are almost all of them Protestants and we can consult Debrett for their antecedents. As for finances, I can clear doubts with a few discreet inquiries among friends in the City. Now, for example, there was that nice Freddy Hawkins. He expressed his interest in you and he is the heir to a baronetcy. And I have it on good authority that he already has five thousand a year from his grandfather.” Mrs. Kingsford raised her lorgnette for emphasis. “And that is five thousand pounds my girl, not dollars.”
Daisy pouted. “Freddy Hawkins has pimples and a queer smell.” Both Mrs. Kingsford and I could not help laughing. Indeed, aunty laughed so hard she put down her lorgnette and dabbed at her eyes with her serviette.
Aunt Kingsford coughed and took some coffee before continuing. “Daisy, at times you are so amusing. As for Freddy Hawkins, one may assume that his complexion will improve with age, and a good wife could certainly encourage him to better hygienic habits.”
Daisy continued to pout, and I seemed possessed with a fit of laughter.
Mrs. Kingsford turned to me, and raised her dreaded eyepiece. “You laugh Miss Mar-see-uh, but you shall not escape scolding. You are Daisy’s senior by more than a year, yet you too are unmarried. I wed Mr. Kingsford at sixteen and lived with him for thirty years. We had three children, all of whom died at birth or soon thereafter. Following the third labor I could no longer conceive, which is why I dote on Daisy as if she were my own child. What is more, despite some misfortune, I have had a good life and I continue to enjoy it. On the other hand, I fear that you are in peril of becoming a bitter old maid.”
“Please, aunt, you must not....”
“Be still, Daisy. What I say to your friend is for her own good.” She continued to examine me, and my demeanor became quiet and serious. “You have a lovely and most expressive face, my dear. Indeed, it reminds me of the images of goddesses and nymphs that decorate this palazzo. However, your figure has not blossomed and ripened as a woman’s should, and this is one reason why I chided you about your eating habits.” I noticed Daisy’s lip quiver, and a tear ran down her cheek as if she still bore the brunt of her aunt’s criticism. “Please do not think me cruel. You are in many respects a fine young woman, and I will help you if I can. I know the world, and I will be frank with you. Young women such as you tend to appeal to men of louche tastes.”
I heard a clatter of silver and china and looked away from Mrs. Kingsford to see Daisy running from the table. I half rose from my chair to follow her, when the aunt interjected, “Please, Marcia, Daisy will be all right.” That was the first time she addressed me without the affected “Miss Mar-see-uh.” I sat, and Mrs. Kingsford continued. “I know that I sometimes seem a silly old woman, but that is a façade. We must all wear masks and play a role to get along, is that not so?”
I looked into her keen blue eyes as if I were seeing her for the first time. She was no longer talking down to me, as though I were a young girl. Rather, she seemed to be taking me into her confidence as an equal, and I would raise the level of my conversation accordingly. “You are a clever woman, and I believe I could learn much from you.”
Mrs. Kingsford sighed. “Yes, some might think me clever. You too, are clever in your way, just as our Daisy is a sweet little fool. You have ingratiated yourself well with her, Marcia, but it may surprise you to know that I do not begrudge you. We women have it hard living in a man’s world, and you have already had more than your share of misfortune.”
She apparently had formed an impression of me as a calculating woman. But she also acknowledged that a young woman in my position must use all her weapons and defenses in a world where the odds went against her. Moreover, I had sought her assistance in good faith and my feelings for Daisy were sincere. “It is true, Mrs. Kingsford, that I have little more than some wit and a pretty face, but my love for your niece is genuine. I would not hurt her for the world. But if you do not trust me or think me a bad influence, I will leave this household at once. However, I would at least ask that you extend me the courtesy of permitting me to say farewell to my dearest friend.” I put on a bold face to back up my words, because I did not believe she would turn me out of her house.
She smiled, and replied indirectly, by telling me a story. “A few years ago while in Rome, I met a charming young girl from New York. You remind me of her, at least in looks if not in character, and she was younger, barely nineteen. She came from a good family, had some money and travelled with a companion who made little effort to control her. The girl soon fell in with a bad crowd, mostly titled Europeans and expatriate Americans, and they pulled her down to their level which included her participation in some unspeakable things.” She stopped a moment to let her reference to “unspeakable things” sink in. “The upshot is this: the girl ran off with a disreputable Italian count and her companion could, or would do nothing about it except to wire the girl’s parents and then return to New York. The scoundrel used the young woman abominably, and then abandoned her at some cheap hotel, where she died of the fever before her twentieth birthday.” She stopped, but continued staring at me with her piercing blue eyes.
I quivered inside, like a mouse gazing into the eyes of a cat, but outwardly, I remained cool. “What an awful story. Do you predict such a fate for me?”
“No, my dear, I believe you will get along in this world, with or without my help. My fear is for Daisy.”
“Do you believe that I would lead her astray?”
“I believe that is possible, although you might do so without intending her any harm.”
I wanted to remain in Mrs. Kingsford’s good graces, and I needed her support. It seemed as though she wanted me to separate from Daisy, but I also reckoned that she might not cast me adrift without compensation. I did not want to ask for money outright, so I tried a different tack. “I desire only what is best for my friend, and would never harm her. I am at your mercy, Mrs. Kingsford. Please tell me what you want me to do.”
Her benign smile raised my hopes. “I have a proposition that, if you are agreeable, might greatly improve your condition. However, it might seem odd to you and you are of course free to refuse, in which case I am willing to help you so far as to pay for your second cabin passage to New York along with some cash for the journey.”
I inferred from this that I must accept her proposal or the second cabin passage home plus a small handout. She clearly did not want me around Daisy since she feared my influence over her niece. I was in desperate need of assistance, but I would inquire about her proposition before making my decision. “Please tell me what you propose for me.”
“Does the name Arthur Wolcott mean anything to you?”
I immediately recognized the name. “Of course, he is a famous American author. I have read two of his novels.”
“That is good. Did you know that Mr. Wolcott resides here, in Florence?”
“No, I was not aware of that.”
“Mr. Wolcott is a good acquaintance of mine, and he happens to be in need of a personal secretary. Have you any abilities that would be useful in such a position?”
I had acquired some practical office skills, but I could not imagine Mr. Wolcott hiring a woman. “I write a very good hand, and I have learned stenography and the new typewriting, but surely, you are not suggesting me for such a position. Would not Mr. Wolcott want a young man?”
Mrs. Kingsford did not respond to my question. “You possess some good practical skills, but Mr. Wolcott is a man of culture and refinement. Have you any knowledge of the fine arts?”
A bit perplexed, I replied, “I am accomplished at drawing and painting. Some of my watercolors have won prizes.”
She smiled broadly. “You will do perfectly. Now as to the matter of his secretary’s sex, you are correct. He most certainly wants a young man for the position.”
This was too bewildering. “Mrs. Kingsford, please be direct. You say I would be perfect for the position, yet you also say that Mr. Wolcott wants a young man. I do not understand.”
“Please, Marcia, bear with me. Daisy has told me that you were very good at acting the male roles in school plays. Is that correct?”
I began to see where this was going, though I could scarcely believe it. “I played Romeo to Daisy’s Juliet to some acclaim, although our headmistress chided me for being too ardent in my performance.”
“That is understandable, considering your great affection for Daisy.” I looked directly into her eyes and I thought I detected odium in her squint, as though she suspected something unnatural in my love for her niece. I remained calm and silent, and at length she asked, “Do you think you could play the male role for Mr. Wolcott?”
Copyright © 2011 by Gary Inbinder