|Violet and Gold (1905-6) John Lavery|
Her one word was a mixture of surprise and something that sounded like guilt. To her husband’s amazement she briefly chuckled. Ainsworth relaxed into a laugh too, rubbing a hand across his chin before shaking his head with humour. Violet took his arm and swayed against it with a grin.
‘Well, look, it’s a lovely portrait,’ she laughed, adding, ‘Was Meredith pleased?’
‘Oh, yes, very much so, and refused the fee I gave him.’ He waved his hand as Violet opened her mouth, scandalised. ‘I paid him, don’t concern yourself, he shall not starve on our account. Least-ways, not before New Year when he is coming to dinner.’
Violet smiled, content, and regarded the painting again with an air of satisfaction. Her husband watched her, waiting for the comment he had expected all afternoon, but she didn’t offer it, so he did.
‘Lewis looked better than I have seen him all year, certainly better than the Summer when I really felt – well, let’s not dwell on that – but this seems to have given him some relief from his troubles. We can only hope that the relief remains for a while, if it can’t be permanent. I like the man, it was a shame to see him so…’ Ainsworth paused as his wife’s hand tightened on his arm with nervous agreement. He nodded, then added, ‘Anyway, he was so pleased with the portrait - and rightly so, you look charming – he was so pleased that, well, I didn’t like to say…’
Violet grinned, then looked back at the canvas at the little black and white dog. ‘No, quite right,’ she agreed.
John glanced at his wife, then joined her gazing at the little black and white face, ‘I didn’t like to say, we don’t own a dog…’
‘Goodness, are you alright?’ she exclaimed and he wondered if it would be bad manners to hurl himself from a window into the street.
‘Quite alright,’ he blustered, and took the proffered hand of greeting stiffly.
‘It has been an absolute age since we have seen each other, but I know your work, of course.’ Mrs Ainsworth drew him to the window, a dangerous temptation, but also to a collection of ornate chairs with large curved arms and backs. He sat mutely, as her voice chimed on in a practised manner, ‘I should have realised that as you were at school with my brother, you would have known John then too.’
Lewis nodded, ‘Briefly.’
She waited for more detail but once more he lapsed into retreating silence. She gave a brisk nod, and started again.
‘Well, then, I heard from Andrew – my brother currently up in Scotland, his wife is from those parts – well, anyway, I heard from him that you had seen each other in York…’ She trailed off and looked to him for confirmation.
‘Briefly,’ Lewis repeated, and felt a momentary wince as he touched the sharp edge of socialising. He had known this woman when she was fifteen, a hushed little presence in his friend’s house, watching them from a window as they played tennis on the lawn, a pair of large dark eyes at the dinner table. Her brother had teased Lewis about her, and she had flushed with mortification. She had been awkward and he had liked her. She was barely recognisable now. He felt his hands tighten on his bag.
‘My husband has explained that he wishes for you to paint me?’
‘Good.’ She paused for more again, but he felt unable and sunk further back as she began to look flustered as if she was pulling at different chords to see which would pull him to her. He felt, and had felt for over a year, detached. She gave her fine golden skirt a brush, with staged self-consciousness. ‘Will this do for the painting?’ she asked, tilting her head and almost flirting now. He held back the desire to sigh and look around for a means to escape.
‘I meant to explain to your husband –‘ he began but she stopped him with a brief clap of her hands and she stood suddenly, taking him by surprise.
‘Splendid,’ she continued, and gestured to the scrolled arm of the chair as the light caught the golden tones in the carving. ‘I thought I might stand here, in the light if that suits you?’
He nodded, not replying There is as good as anywhere for a picture I will abandon by supper time tomorrow and from his canvas bag he drew out a small sketch book. As he flipped back the pages and drew out a stump of a pencil, Mrs Lewis gave a forced smile of victory before settling into her pose, her hand on her hip and her hand on the arm of the chair. He didn’t miss the brief uncertain frown that played across her forehead for a moment as she watched him, then her gaze found neutral space and they began.
‘Sixer?’ he murmured, and the dog made a small noise of recognition, before shuffling a little closer to him. Lewis put down his pencil and pad on the table to his side and leaned forward, his chin on his hands. ‘I have nothing for you, little one, go and find your mistress if you are after food.’
Sixer stood, made a grumbling noise of discontent and then jumped beside him on an adjoining chair. The bulldog rested a slightly mournful face on the arm where moments before Mrs Ainsworth had leaned. Again, a grumpy whinge erupted, followed by a little bark. Lewis sat back, a frown covering a slight smile.
‘Well, look, you seem a nice girl, Sixer, but I’m not the company you are after. Go on along and find the kitchens.’ He waved a hand of dismissal which Sixer regarded but did not move. His hand reached over to move her but rested on the warm, hard dome of her skull, her thumb moving down the white stripe that led to her nose. Sixer sat very still and allowed the hand to stroke the velvet of her head for a moment, before hastily licking her companion and bolting from the room. Moments later, Mrs Ainsworth appeared with a maid carrying a tray and Lewis allowed his patroness to pour him tea and feed him cake while he considered the feel of warm velvet in the palm of his hand. He didn’t even refuse when she offered to pose again tomorrow, and found he actually wanted to return.
Sixer gave a huff, followed by an unexpectedly explosive sneeze which involved her headbutting his foot painfully. She looked as surprised as him, but clambered into the chair again to rest her head on the arm. This time, Lewis gave her head a brief rub, then reached for his pad and pencil as Sixer regarded him with glinting eyes. ‘Yes, well, keep still, rum ‘un.’ He murmured as he drew the outline of the skull, the curve to the nose, the white flash across her snout. Sixer sat quietly, watching as he drew, occasionally tilting her head in question. He waved his pencil at her and her head straightened.
In a slow movement, Sixer placed her paws up on the arm of the chair, stretched, her tail rigid and her stumpy nose raised, before placing all four paws up on the arm and sitting there as if on a pedestal. Lewis gave a laugh at the pose of the little dog, and flipped back another page to hastily draw her, but a noise alerted her to the approach of the tea-tray and she jumped down, before bolting for the door again. Lewis watched her with a smile that lingered as his hostess appeared, leading the tray. She paused briefly as he met her smile with his, unexpected and relaxed. To his annoyance, she seemed to take the credit for his cheer, but as he closed his pad, an idea came to him. Before he could speak, Mrs Ainsworth was proffering a cup of tea.
‘Are you making progress to your satisfaction?’ she asked, cheerily.
‘I will be ready to paint soon I think,’ he replied, surprising himself. ‘I was wondering if you would be agreeable to me adding a small detail. I think that it would enhance the work, and it has certainly-’
She cut him off, unexpectedly sharply, although her words were agreeable, ‘You must do as you see best, you are the artist, this must be your vision.’
‘Yes, but,’ he began, refusing the cake offered by the maid as he tried to explain, ‘I really wanted to add-’
‘Meredith,’ she interrupted again, dismissing the maid efficiently, ‘it is your choice entirely. I trust you.’
He sat back, for a moment gripped by the threat of giggles as he imagined making sturdy Sixer the object of the portrait with Violet, excuse me Mrs Ainsworth, the esteemed, young hostess somewhere in the background. He nodded, and then grinned, helping himself to cake.
‘There will come a day, soon, when I will not come here. The painting will actually be finished and that will be that.’
Sixer leaned against him for a moment, then grumbled.
‘Four months ago, I did not really wish to live anymore.’
Lewis said the words in a matter-of-fact manner and artist and dog watched the light fade over the square in silence, his hand occasionally stroking her forelegs and crisp fold of her ear. Sixer turned her face to him in an unspoken question and he gave a weak smile.
‘We’ll see,’ he replied.
‘So, has Violet offered any explanation?’ Sir George Crosby, Violet’s father enquired as he and John Ainsworth regarded the painting as it almost glittered in the lights of their evening party.
‘None, and it’s such a fine-looking pup that people assume we have a dog somewhere and that it is Vi’s pride and joy.’ Ainsworth replied, frowning. Sir George leaned forward with a conspiratorial whisper.
‘Odd thing is, it looks just like Flora, a little bulldog that we had when Violet was a child. She doted on that dog, they could barely be parted when Violet’s mother, well, when she passed.’ Sir George paused, looking again at the painting, a frown briefly creasing his features. ‘Curious coincidence, but possibly Violet said something?’
‘It’s possible,’ agreed Ainsworth, mainly to close the matter, as he looked across the room to his wife.
The murmured pleasure of the guests as they viewed it swelled the room and Violet watched Lewis sip wine while three different women, all very wealthy, attempted to extract a promise from him to paint them. He nodded to her and she glided over to rescue him.
‘May I borrow you for a moment, I believe someone has a technical question for you, Mr Lewis,’ she breezed, and he felt his arm taken and he was spirited from the women gracefully and gratefully.
‘My thanks,’ he whispered, and she beamed as she walked him through to the dining room where the painting was displayed.
‘The thanks are all ours, it is a fine portrait,’ she replied as her husband drew up to them.
‘My wonderful Vi looks positively golden,’ added Ainsworth. A complicated series of looks passed between husband and wife before Ainsworth patted Lewis on the back fondly and retreated into the party. In front of the picture, Mrs Ainsworth and Mr Lewis both looked at the portrait but not at the stately figure of Violet, but of Sixer, sturdy but noble.
‘Your guests are surprised you have a dog,’ he finally admitted, and Violet looked away smiling broadly.
‘Ah well,’ she replied, and squeezed his arm. Glancing around swiftly she looked back at Sixer and added in a low voice, ‘I have always found the company of dogs to be very soothing in times of despair. Do you remember Flora?’
A bolt of memory flourished in his face and his eyes widened.
‘But, her collar said…’
Violet laughed, ‘That’s not Flora. She has been gone for almost twenty years. Sixer is what is left of the warmth and joy that a dog can give you when you really need it.’ She squeezed his arm but continued to look at the dog in the portrait. ‘Sometimes, life alters without your hand to change it. Things that were easy become impossible, damaging, frightening. Maybe, just then, that warm companionship is just what is needed. I can’t think of anything else I wanted.’ He looked at her, and she shrugged. ‘Pain never lessens, but somethings allow you to see the breadth of it without feeling quite so afraid.’
They stood together in silence, just for a moment more, but she patted his arm and left him in front of his work. Moments later, Ainsworth appeared in the doorway, stopping abruptly as he found only Lewis.
‘Oh, I was in search of Vi, I thought she was with you.’
‘Gone back into the fray, just now,’ Lewis replied, and his slightly harassed friend disappeared back into the throng. In the peace of the dining room, Lewis heard the soft tap of claws on floorboards and he sat down on a dining chair, waiting. Sixer’s warm, velvet head nudged under this outstretched hand, and he smiled.