The Secret Artist of Paris is the third story in the Historical Anthology A Season in Paris.
Giverny, Autumn 1935
She could see five of them from her vantage spot hidden up amongst the oak and chestnut trees on the hillside. A family on the river bank messing about with a little red boat. The two brothers were taking it in turns to row their small sister along the bank. An imperious little lady, her white-blonde hair caught the rays of sun as it headed into the golden hour, her hands never still as she directed her brothers from the front of the boat. The father stood on the bank in his shirtsleeves, legs astride and hands on hips, bellowing instructions at the children in the boat, and laughing noisily at their antics. They didn’t pay him much attention, no more did his glamorous, languorous wife, golden-haired like her daughter and lying stretched out on a picnic rug in the sun. She wore a low-backed, skirted red maillot, her already brown limbs bronzing further. Her attention seemed caught up in the thick book laid out before her.
The little boat came back to shore and the father pulled it in, and then fell to talking with his sons, with a lot of energetic arm movements that looked as though he were rowing for his life.
Genevieve looked down at her painting, to the scene she’d tried to capture half an hour ago from her secret hide in the autumn leaves. It had just been the two younger children in the boat then; the oldest son had been on the bank next to his father, and it was the way he watched his father that had caught Genevieve’s attention.
She knew this family, although they did not know her. They were staying at the same hotel as Genevieve and her mother. They were extremely wealthy, everybody else in the hotel knew that about them before they even knew their names, and they were German. Perhaps had they not been so very wealthy, they would not have been tolerated. Genevieve had suspected, when she first came to hear of them, that the von Mylius family were the reason for their own sudden departure from Paris, and arrival in the russet-coloured countryside of Normandy. Amelia, her mother, had a knack for knowing where to find wealthy, middle-aged men needing affirmation of their masculinity.
Genevieve had noticed them in the dining room the night before. The Baroness, who was truly beautiful, had received many glances from around the room, and the eldest son, Sebastian, had come in for his fair share of admiration too. He was very handsome; everything their new chancellor was trying to sell as the new German man, to be on display at the Olympics next year.
He was tall, his shoulders were broad, and he had an open face, as though he had no secrets at all. His hair was light brown, streaked through with gold from the sun.
Genevieve scratched her stiff-bristled brush on her palette and lightened the side of Sebastian’s face on her canvas. She knew his name because the family constantly called on him. His mother got him to organise a hundred little tasks for her every day, the sort of things her husband ought to have seen to. The younger boy was forever seeking his approval and desperately hiding his need, and the little girl seemed to look on him as a sort of demigod sent for her entertainment. The Baron just existed in their midst, like a tree in a landscape. Necessary to give the picture form and depth, but not particularly interesting.
Only Sebastian noticed his father.
Genevieve, whose glance had wandered back down to the beautiful family by the river, pulled her knee up to her chin and frowned down at her canvas again. It was no good looking at them now; she wanted the moment from before.
Something moved in the leaf mould behind her, and she turned to see what sort of animal had braved her presence to come so close. It wasn’t an animal; it was the little yellow-haired girl from the family below.
‘Bonjour,’ said the girl in harshly accented French.
Genevieve stared at her. Her hair was perfectly neat in two straight plaits down her back, despite a whole afternoon on the river and a rummage up the hillside. Her pinafore dress was damp around the hem, but the white shirt underneath was still pristine. She was like a well-made doll, untouched by exertion.
Genevieve, pushing her unruly blonde curls off her forehead, nodded at her.
‘What are you doing? Are you hiding from someone?’
‘You’re from the hotel, aren’t you? I saw you at dinner last night. You were with the woman with the funny hands.’
Genevieve smiled to hear Amelia so described. Oh, how she would hate that.
‘My mother,’ she said.
‘Oh. I thought perhaps you were her companion,’ the little girl tilted her head to the side, considering Genevieve. ‘Well, I’m Tabitha. That’s my family down there. Golly, I wish I could wear trousers,’ she said, eyeing Genevieve’s navy cotton sailor pants and white knit sweater-blouse. ‘Mutti won’t let me. She says trousers are for boys, and I have to learn to be a lady. What are you doing? Are you an artist? That’s very good.’ She hesitated, coming cautiously closer to the painting and peering at it. ‘Why, it’s us!’
‘Yes,’ said Genevieve, because silence didn’t seem to be an option with this child. Her curls fell forward again and as she pushed them back with her free hand, her fingers twitched on her brush.
‘That’s me and Max in the boat, and Mutti on the rug, and Vati and Sebastian being old men together.’ She continued to stare at the painting, and then laughed.
‘Sebastian does do that thing with his head, you know. All the time, tips it forward as though he is thinking very heavy thoughts, so you think you ought not interrupt, but I always do anyway and he never is cross with me. Are you in love with him? Is that why you painted him?’
‘I painted all of you,’ said Genevieve, not meeting the candid, curious eyes of the child, but mixing up some blue paint on her pallet to distract herself.
‘Yes, but girls are always falling in love with Sebastian. He is very handsome.’
Genevieve didn’t answer, but slowly, and very carefully because her brush was all wrong for the task, with too many bristles going in their own direction, she added some blue to the shimmer of colours in the river on her canvas.
‘Don’t you think he is very handsome?’
‘Yes, very,’ she said dispassionately, and then added for good measure, ‘his eyes are rather far apart.’
‘They are not!’
Genevieve shrugged. The sound of someone climbing the hill behind Tabitha could be heard and the child sighed.
‘They’ve come looking for me. Shame, I wanted to stay and watch you paint. Can I come with you another time?’
Tabitha pouted, and the footfalls grew louder as the tall form of Sebastian could be seen striding towards them.
He called out to his sister in German, and she giggled and answered back.
‘I beg your pardon, mademoiselle,’ said Sebastian, stooping under the low branches Genevieve had secreted herself beneath. ‘I hope she has not been annoying you.’
He leaned on a low branch to support his stooped frame as he looked directly at her with light blue eyes. Genevieve smiled at him. His eyes were rather far apart, but had she not been in the habit of studying people so much, she wouldn’t have noticed. It made him appear like a child in wonder. Perhaps he was.
‘We were arguing over the aesthetics of your face,’ she said, because she wanted to make him blush. He laughed out loud, and she could see that she’d surprised him.
‘I only wanted to know if she thought you handsome. She painted you, see?’
‘I painted all of you,’ Genevieve repeated. ‘Perhaps I think your father handsome.’
Sebastian chuckled but Tabitha screwed up her nose.
‘Vati? No, you couldn’t.’
‘Tabitha, that’s enough,’ said Sebastian, still smiling, but with a note of authority in his voice. ‘May I see the painting, mademoiselle?’
His French was very good, and his manner was— Genevieve couldn’t put her finger on it. It wasn’t charm. She was used to men who deployed charm to get smiles and favours, and he wasn’t flirting with her. He was simply being friendly, but for some reason he was very compelling. She hesitated.
‘Only if you wish to show it, of course,’ he added.
Genevieve saw then that he understood, and that made it easy to show him.
‘It’s not finished; it’s not even very good. The light is tricky.’ She pushed her curls back again and looked at him fully.
Sebastian was gazing at her painting, his eyes roving over the details. He fixed on the little group in the centre of the picture, on the bank of the Seine, and his lips pressed together and he looked— sad.
‘You do not like it, monsieur?’
He looked up, and there was no artifice or embarrassment in his gaze.
‘On the contrary, mademoiselle. You have captured elements of our family that I do not think many people see.’ He glanced back at the painting and his look grew more serious. ‘And, to repay your openness in kind, I should tell you that it is that skill, bringing to light the things I would rather not be a part of our family life, that makes me sad.’
Tabitha rolled her eyes and said something to her brother in German. He smiled down at her.
‘Tabitha tells me I should stop philosophising and ask you to join us for our picnic.’
‘I didn’t know how to say it in French,’ Tabitha explained.
Genevieve smiled, touched by the unexpected courtesy of this explanation.
‘I need to finish painting before the sun goes down,’ she said.
‘In which case we ought to get into position, hey, little scamp?’ The seriousness fell away from Sebastian and he looked younger, more like a brother than an uncle. Tabitha’s smile grew, and the little pucker that had been pinching her brow disappeared.
‘Yay! I’ll make Max take me out again, and you and Vati can bore on together again. Au revoir.’ She waved energetically at Genevieve. ‘See you at dinner tonight.’ She disappeared noisily through the undergrowth and Sebastian smiled after her, but the gravity had returned to him.
‘May I ask your name, mademoiselle?’
‘Mademoiselle Dupuis.’ Sebastian nodded at her, and even though he was leaning down over a tree branch, the gesture was very formal. ‘I am Sebastian von Mylius. Thank you for sharing your painting with me.’ He straightened, untangling himself from the branches, and hesitated before he followed his sister.
‘We are a family on the brink of something, don’t you think, mademoiselle?’
‘I am not sure, monsieur.’
Sebastian looked at her carefully, reading her before she could hide her thoughts.
‘You think we are already past that, and things can no longer be altered?’
‘I would not presume to say, monsieur.’
‘No.’ He glanced back at her canvas. ‘Only to paint.’ He looked steadily at the painting one last time, and then glanced behind him through the leaves at the family group by the river.
‘I hold more hope than you, mademoiselle. I do not think things are at a point where they cannot be improved.’
Genevieve did not know what to say. There was such sadness in his blue eyes, although his face remained calm and he even smiled a little as he spoke.
‘Please, monsieur, it is just a painting, and not even a very good one.’
‘You are wrong; it is very fine. I do not say that as any mere pleasantry.’
Tabitha’s voice could be heard calling out to her brother from further down the hillside.
‘I’ll return to my place before the light eludes you. Mademoiselle, it has been a pleasure to meet you.’ He gave another funny little nod, and then strode out of the trees and down the grassy hillside, back to the river.