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Girl with the almost-freckled face
by Kenneth Mulholland
'Love is the sweetest thing.'
Perhaps this could be a story about war, but in the end it is a story about love; love on two fronts, and here I use the word 'fronts' with the wisdom of hindsight; the vantage point of many years since those long ago events.
In Nineteen-hundred and twelve, as a young man of seventeen, I had the good fortune to take leave of my family home in the Lake District of Cumbria in the North of England and travel all the far miles down through Manchester and Birmingham to London. I say, 'the good fortune' and that came to me in the rather formidable form of my Aunt Jessie, my Mother's sister Jessica in truth, who paid my way and tempted my parents with an offer to 'keep me' for a couple of years on the understanding that I should pursue the talents I had, from a very early age, displayed as a painter.
In the Lake Districts there was ample fare for any would-be artist with a bent towards landscape, that is surely so, however even as a child I had exhibited tendencies more suited to the rendering of the human form, and especially portraiture. My anatomical works were fairly basic, and yet faces fascinated me so much so that I wanted to capture them when ever and where ever they took my fancy. In childhood, as a self taught student, I learned how to quickly record my subjects with nothing more than charcoal on butcher's sheets or the back of old wrapping paper. Sometimes I used crayons or pastels, even chalk, to make those primitive sketches and most, over the passing years, were lost.
Now, I have none of them. But I do have a collection of oils, mostly on board and panels, and some canvasses still in my possession. Of these, there are many favourites, all portraits of course. Some are of working men: grimy coalminers, weather-beaten fishermen, a light-house keeper, shepherds and farmers. Others are of the clergy and of innkeepers, politicians and beggars. And there are the portraits of women. Work-house women, prostitutes and whores, artists models, Land-Owners wives, and sometimes, Land-Owners mistresses. Yet of all the paintings I have left, that have not been sold or utilized over the years as payment for debt, there are a handful of portraits that I most prize. They are all of women.
That I care greatly for the overall female form I, perhaps, have never fully realised in the medium of oil or, to a lesser extent, watercolour. And even so, I consider that the faces I have painted and cherish are those I laboured long at, working hard to define them and to endow them with lighting that would enrich each subject's features and best show off her natural beauty of hair, bone structure, eyes, nose, mouth. Even in later childhood, I had been aware of the great portrait artists; those men who were able to capture their subjects in some subliminal way: the bowed visage, the tilted head, the backward glance. Vermeer was a master of such 'accidental' poses, as if in reality his subjects had actually been frozen in some kind of stop-motion, though of course his models are often part of a tableau, as in 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.' And yet the solitary and bewitching, 'Girl with a Pearl Earring,' perhaps best defines his ability to capture a moment's whimsical motion in a single frozen frame. It is not as if she had posed, but as if she was simply caught half-way toward turning to the artist, a question on her lips.
My early paintings were, for the most, pale imitations of artists such as Vermeer, and while I resided in London with Aunt Jessie there were rumours of a new wave of painters who were sweeping away convention with bold strokes and inventive techniques. Braque and Pablo Ruiz-Picasso-as he was to become known, had been busy working in Paris.
On the money, and with the good-will of my Aunt, I crossed the English Channel and in the summer of Nineteen-thirteen, found my way from Le Havre and down the winding roads eventually to Paris: capital of spirit, of adventure, romance, and the dangerous, mysterious, intriguing Parisienne art-world. There, I discovered myself, and the seamy side of those who would be more than they could ever possibly attain anywhere else in the countryside or, in truth, in their own lands.
I took up residence in pokey circumstances in the basement of a wine house. There was no light apart from a grimy grille that offered only the passing feet of those on the pavement above, and if I wished to paint I had two choices: climb to the roof of the building, or set up my easel on the outside footpath. To survive, I found service in several ways. I worked as a waiter, which was not easy considering my limited French, as a driver of lorries transporting wine barrels and as a labourer on various projects such as road repair in the narrow cobbled streets and, ghastly, sewer works.
Somewhere during that year; I must guess here that it might have been 'Chez Rosalie', but there my memories may be confused, I came into contact with Zadkine, who was a sculptor, and the Polish poet Zborowski. They, in turn, knew Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian Jew who had come to Paris in 1906. He was known by then as the 'Prince of Monmartre,' although at the time I arrived he had taken up quarters somewhere in Montparnasse and then again with another artist, Chaim Soutine, in the Boulevard Raspail. Chagall, another artist coming to prominence, was about during my time, and it was nothing to encounter he or Lipchitz at one or other salon, drinking poor claret, the 'vin ordinaire' of the day, and arguing with several of the others, sometimes very loudly.
For my part, as an unknown Englishman, and rather callow at that, I attempted to avoid the deprivations of alcohol and hashish and all the other mind and flesh consuming pursuits of those about me. Occasionally I fell from the lofty heights of my reserve, but for the most, I plodded on, striving to find subjects and to paint in a style that was simply disregarded by these new pioneers as passé-'old hat'. I did discover one young woman; she actually worked for a solicitor who was paying me a few franks for gardening duties, who posed for me as a portrait subject, and so delighted was I to have her that we went to lunch once or twice. But of course, there was the inevitable boyfriend, and nothing came of it. As for the end product; after several sittings, and many working sketches I had a portrait that I have still in my possession, which has haunted me over more years than I care to consider. She had a rare, dark beauty; her eyes held that orbed, shadowy hint of sexuality and abandon: and the palette I favoured to capture her was rich with Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber and Brown Alizarin.
Then, my good fortune led me to another lady of Spanish birth. Again, she was a worthy subject, and I spent more than a month working as many hours with her as my night's would allow, and her parent's would allow, to finally catch her pale, fragile beauty in three-quarter profile against a Magenta and Crimson Lake background.
Oh yes, there were others; women who paid me to paint them by sleeping with me, women whom I paid by sleeping with them for the same reason. I found myself slipping into the quagmire of excess that Paris in early Nineteen-fourteen offered. Of course there were rumours of war at hand at that time, but mostly people ignored them and went about their daily lives as if such a thing could never happen. After all, this was Paris, the hub of the world, about which all other societies and events, and even countries, revolved.
When the events of June 28th. 1914. ( the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife)occurred in Sarajevo, Austria made such huge demands for compensation that Serbia refused to comply and Austria-Hungary, supported by Germany, declared war. Russia took the side of Serbia. France, a sworn ally of Russia, joined them. Two days later, August 4th. 1914. England declared war on Germany in order to fulfil its obligation to uphold Belgium's neutrality. By that time Belgium was already awash with the field grey uniforms of the advancing German army.
It was rumoured that Modigliani had said that he would stay on in Paris, painting and dying, little by little, rather than return to Italy or join in the fighting. Indeed, his palette grew brighter as his health failed and the world turned to nightmare.
Letters reached me from England, from my parents and family; Aunt Jessica and friends, imploring me to come home, yet I determined to remain, considering that if I returned I should enlist anyway and be sent back again, and hoping against hope that somehow, somehow, a miracle might happen and the war be concluded before it destroyed all my own personal hopes and ambitions. That this decision was abject folly I, only later, had time to consider at length.
The salons and cafes of Paris were swiftly emptying of young men, all eager to stand to for the flag; all marching to military depots and after minimal, often meagre training, away to the remoteness of the Front.
I was drinking too much, my work was suffering. The clarion blare of the call to arms began to overtake me.
In the end, after nights of drunken deliberations and days of sober thinking, I made the final decision that it was better to attempt to save lives, than to take them. I put away my brushes and pigments and left my few belongings, including my two rickety easels, panels and canvasses, stored with my land lord and went to join up with the Croix-Rouge Françoise, the French Red Cross.
By August 26th, 1914 Liege, Namur and Louvain had fallen to the Germans and on the 31st of that same month the Queen of the Belgians and her children arrived at Dover. As the German army of the Kaiser enclosed Belgium, crushing its forces and surging across the country on a wide sweep, the armed might of France rushed to defend Belgium and its own frontier.
My training at first-aid was rudimentary and swift. In a matter of two weeks I was taken on with an infantry regiment bound for the fighting that had already, in places, crossed the border from Belgium into France. We were known as stretcher bearers, and there were precious few designated to each company. I tended to stand out, an Englishman in a French fighting unit, and because of my limited grasp of the language, often became the butt of their jokes, but for all that, I and my Red Cross companions were looked upon with some esteem.
When we, that is our small contingent of Red Cross workers, arrived close enough to the battle lines of Flanders, we disembarked with the whole French regiment, many of us being transported in nothing more than lorries and buses. There we were to find our way to the forward postings that lay somewhere south-west of Lille, which had fallen to the invaders in late August. As stretcher bearers, we were expected to be operative almost immediately, seeking out the wounded and bringing them back to medical way-posts set up close behind the lines. Mostly these were nothing more than prefabricated tent cities and lean-to huts which eventually became muddy shell-holes and trenches where hundreds would die in the stinking mud.
Small villages, further back behind the lines, were also conscripted for military use, and it was in one of these, sometime after the beginning of the Battle of the Marne in early September, I'm almost sure, that I first set eyes upon her. Her name was Jolie, although I didn't know that then. She couldn't have been more than fourteen. Later, she told me that she was there, and so my memory seems correct. I recall women dancing together in a cobbled square surrounded by quaint little shops and houses, and the fleeting glimpse of a small figure between the whirling women, strutting alone; the fingers of both hands grasped together, a determined frown on her face as if she, like the village ladies and nurses working there, was concentrating on celebrating our arrival, or perhaps had something else, something more disturbing, weighing upon her childish mind. It is still like a sepia photograph frozen in my thoughts, a single brief image. Her long, straw-coloured hair was pulled back, tied by a dark ribbon and there was an embroidered white pattern around the bodice and collar of her dress. Otherwise her clothing was all black: skirt, hose and solid lace-up leather shoes. The image fades swiftly now. Women: young, old. Children. Mostly only ancient men and boys; the manhood of the area already sucked away to their fate in the trenches, few to ever return.
In the weeks preceding my arrival at the front, Russia had mobilized, the British Expeditionary Force had landed on French shores and the Germans declared war against Russia and France. In late October the first Canadian troops entered the conflict. Much of Europe by then had been engulfed in a terrible and deadly struggle that was to see the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings. The war continued during the fading months of Nineteen Fourteen and on into Nineteen Fifteen.
By then the initial open battlefields of Belgium and France had become miles of trenches on an unyielding line. As winter closed in, those trenches turned to rivers of mud. I will not spend too long relating the misery and suffering encountered during that time, save to say that I witnessed many tragic and horrifying events that no human being should ever be required to endure. Hardened, as I was slowly becoming, there were still occasions when I retched out my guts, wiped my mouth with my sleeve and bent to the next task. The terrible consequences of the frontline conflict; its massed, suicidal infantry attacks against fortified positions, the slurry of mud, the pestilence of lice and rats, the disease of dysentery, the bloated bodies of drowned men and draft animals, were as nothing to what was to follow.
In the early months of 1915, Canadians were amongst the first to bear the brunt of gas, drifting in clouds on the wind. Initially it was chlorine based, then in the ensuing weeks it was followed by the lethal mustard gases that blinded, suffocated, burnt out the sinus and lungs, disfigured and finally drowned the victims in their own mucus. Thousands fell, hundreds died, others were left stricken, in one way or another, for the rest of their lives.
We were issued with crude devises to ward off the worst effects; cotton-wool pads and masks, but these often proved faulty and unreliable. It took six able-bodied men, ploughing sometimes waist-deep in mud, to bear a single wounded man from the field of battle, and often this had to be done under fire or at night or in torrential rain. We were never dry, our leggings and boots rotted swiftly and we suffered trench-foot as one of the many minor, day to day, discomforts. Eventually, I and several of my French comrades were caught in the aftermath of a gas raid and struggled back to a clearing station behind the lines. My eyes were gushing and I was all but blinded. Even the first-aid nurses that attended some of the worst cases of gassing fell ill after coming into contact with the fumes from the soldier's uniforms.
I was taken to a field hospital some thirty kilometres from the Front. It turned out to be a farm house where the Rouge Croix had set up facilities to cope with the heavy flow of casualties, and for the first time in many months I was to experience the comfort of dry bedding and hot food. It took several weeks for me to begin to recover, and I was assured that my sight would return and my lungs would again function properly. A doctor there told me that I had only been exposed briefly and not in an extreme manner, although he could not guarantee what the long term outcome might be.
During that convalescent stay, I had time to consider the folly of my past actions and my present situation. I had chosen to leave Paris and my pitiable digs, my contemporaries of the raw French world of art, my possibilities back in England, and instead had thrown them all over to join a foreign Red Cross and wind up, gassed and half-blinded in some little backwater farm, not too many kilometres from the frontline that, even as I felt my way unsteadily about with the aid of a stick, was beginning to crumble.
It was, in truth, a chance meeting whilst nearing the recovery of my sight, that left an indelible mark upon me. I was taking the sun in what remained of a long neglected rose garden that bordered the vineyard and pastures of the farm when I came upon a blinded soldier in a wheelchair and a young girl attending him. Something... Something made me pay attention to her. I don't know...I cannot to this day say what it was, I just screwed up my eyes and tried my hardest to focus on her, on her face...a face I seemed to have seen before. Perhaps it was because of the effects of the gassing, but I had the graphic impression of her features written down in my mind from that day on. And what I saw was a snapshot of the girl I had seen six months, a year or...God knows?... how long before, in a little village at the edge of war, dancing and rejoicing for those who were coming to stand against the invader. Yet then, through my blurred sight, I envisioned her features as older, wearier than her fourteen or fifteen years. But when she smiled, tilting her head toward me, so close that I only had to reach out to touch her, I had the fleeting, intangible vision of faint freckles strewn across the bridge of her nose. She enquired, through the soldier with her, as to my well being, and with some difficulty we held a three-way conversation in rudimentary French and dialectal Flemish. It transpired that in the previous year, she had lived with her family on a small farm in Vlaanderen (Belgian Flanders) near the hill town of Klerken. At the first outbreak of hostilities, her father and an older brother had been called away to aid against the invaders. By mid September of 1914 many refugees became centred in and around Klerken. It was there, amongst the confusion before the Germans broke through, that most of the occupants managed to escape into France. Most, but not all. Some were irretrievably separated. Jolie's mother and grandmother, who had returned to their farm to retrieve the last of their belongings, amongst them.
'Boches! Boches!' Jolie repeated over and over in an animated display of her distress, and that of course I understood well enough. She had arrived as a refugee behind the allied lines at the little village where I first set eyes upon her, in the company of some French nuns, and had then, no matter her youthful age, taken on the temporary duties of a nurse. Eventually she and many other Belgian women and children were to be transported back to houses in and around Paris that were being specially set up to accommodate them. The organization responsible for this project was named The Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, founded by an American lady, Edith Wharton and staffed by Flemish Sisters. Yet Jolie's home and family were lost to her somewhere beyond the Front in the mud and devastation of war-locked countries. She was lost in France as, in a sense, was I.
She came to see me several times afterwards and again, with the aid of an interpreter, we spoke together. She appeared impressed that I was English and a stretcher-bearer. It seemed important to her that there were still men who strove to save lives rather than to take them. She indicated that if she survived the war she intended to make a career in nursing. I told her that I was a painter and that she had a memorable face which I should have liked to capture on canvas. Her answer, in the time that followed, was to bring me some sheets of obsolete medical records and a handful of crayons that she had scrounged from somewhere, suggesting that I should try my eyes and hand as therapy for my recovery.
We spent the fleeting days, those final days when she could manage brief moments away from her many duties, together there out in the ancient, untended, woody rose gardens; Jolie sitting in silence whilst I attempted to render rough images of my fellow invalids, doctors and nurses. I also managed a variety of drawings of the landscape sloping away toward the misty afternoons, and several studies of her, ending in a single three-quarter profile sketch. When it was completed, to the best of my ability at the time, she seemed delighted and I indicated that she should keep it, to which she threw her arms around my neck and hugged me. For that brief moment we gazed into each other's eyes and again I saw, or at least thought I saw, the sprinkle of freckles across her nose. A trick of the fading light, or my impaired vision? I cannot, even now, be certain. What I do recall was the silence of the roses and the stillness of the wind, and the colour of the sky. It appeared to me, through those distant afternoons, to have been overborne by a golden, autumnal hue.
In my faint memory, my mind, I see that garden and she and I sitting there: she, the young child of fifteen, endeavouring to remain still in the stillness and I, working away with eyes squinting to catch her image, my hands striving with such rudimentary strokes as I was able to accomplish, considering my lack of effective vision. I say 'silence' in that old farm garden, although by then the distant 'krump' of the big artillery field guns and the occasional 'bluanch' of a gigantic land mine going up were sounds that had become so much a part of every-day background that they went almost unnoticed. Except by Jolie, her startled eyes and fluttering hands betraying the fragile nature of her mind and situation, separated as she was from family and home by the frontier of devastation that continued to creep slowly into the heart of France.
Then a time came when we were all obliged to vacate the area. At the Front, things were going badly. The Germans were pushing forward and the French, with all their allies, were steadily being forced to give up ground. On a bleak winter's morning, all personal and patients at the farm were moved on, back out of harm's way to be relocated deeper into French territory. Jolie came along to see me just before I and other invalided soldiers were carted off on drays by draft horses who were, by then, an essential part of transportation. Again using an interpreter, we exchanged our thoughts: I thanked her for her kindness and her courage and wished her safe passage through the wretched war, to harmony and home and the reuniting of her family. And she, in turn, wished me recovery of my sight so that I might once more take up my brushes in Paris and continue on as a painter of portraits, when peace was finally restored to the world. She hoped that we would meet again and asked if I might still want to paint her as a grown woman, and I could only respond that if we ever did and I was well enough, I should be glad to have her as a subject, although secretly I knew that was unlikely, considering the plight of war and the millions of lost souls wandering Europe. In the end she leaned forward and pressed her lips to mine. It was a kiss that I have never forgotten. It was not sensual, nor was it childish. It simply held me, touched me, gripped me...and then, gently, released me. Without words, I stared back at that sweet face, at what I still recall to be the faintest sprinkle of freckles, and wondered at myself; a young, foolish, war-wearied man of twenty and she, a frightened, resolute, adolescent child of fifteen. And fleetingly, I believe I thought of many other young men on both sides who were so very bravely, so unthinkingly, offering up their lives to fuel a war of futility, and of the young girls who would never see them home again.
In a château seventy miles beyond Ovillers and the Front, I finally recovered my sight, although from that time on I was dogged by 'flecking' of vision that persisted on and off for years after. It was not of sufficient magnitude to deter me from returning to active duty, although the condition certainly made inroads on my ability to maintain colour and accuracy when I applied myself to painting. However, back then in the war, any able bodied man, which I was considered to be, was eligible for the front. By early Nineteen Sixteen, England was firmly entrenched, America was yet to come into the conflict and France was on her knees. As an Englishman I felt it my duty to pursue the war. Fool that I was, I went back.
This time I was not sent as a stretcher-bearer into the worst of it, and spent a good deal of the following months engaged in work behind the lines carrying wounded to old wreaks of motor vehicles that were plastered with red crosses to denote them as ambulances. In these unreliable vehicles, the poor, torn wretches were driven away to makeshift hospitals in the rear. Often, all that I and others could do was to see the worst of the incoming to graveyards where we just watched over them until they died, then...buried them. It makes me weep to think of that, even now, even all these long years later.
But my own luck was not to hold out. Amidst the terrible battle of the Somme, which had its beginnings in the early morning of July 1. 1916, I had returned to full active duty along the line where the French and British armies attacked the Germans on a twenty-five mile front. Toward the middle of November, during fierce fighting I was caught on the perimeter of a bursting long-range shell and there sustained multiple shrapnel wounds.
As it was, most around me were killed and of those who remained alive, one committed suicide a few weeks later and the others survived, to the best of my knowledge, as life-long invalids.
I do not recall anything much of the weeks and months that followed. Suffering from shell-shock, I did not even really know if there were weeks and months that followed. All I can say is that I was later told what had become of me, and so must, even now, believe it. Through the delirium that ensued, I retain only dis-jointed fragments of memories. Mostly they were the stuff of dream and of nightmare, so that for long I was terrified of sleep and the torment it would bring, yet my lucid waking hours were no more than pale reflections of consciousness shot through with emotions of helplessness, pain, guilt, frustration and anger at the senseless, useless, wastefulness of it all. Perhaps then, if I had had the means, I should have done as others before me and ended the misery.
And yet... There was still a faint glimmer...Something that crept unbidden through the darkest moments and held me, cushioned me in a soft embrace that thrust away the horrors. I would see her face in my mind's imagination; Jolie. Jolie. That little Belgian girl. The image would blossom in my head. The child in the cobbled square dancing, fists clenched, alone, determined...alone. And again, the girl at the farm in the rose gardens, older by a year, wiser and world-wearied, lost and alone but bravely offering herself to nursing and the war effort. Her arms about my shoulders. Our inability to speak to each other, except through sign and kindly consideration. Those last, fading, golden twilights amongst the falling roses.
During those periods when, briefly, I came to my senses I can only recall grimy, pale green walls speckled with brown dots. A mind's first impression, I suppose, or an ongoing eyesight reaction. And yet I also had some cognisance, some vague imagery that eluded me. Much later, I fancied I had been visited at intervals through those missing months, and it came to me that my visitor was Jolie. And yet that surely was the stuff of dream, of fantasy. When I was capable of enquiring I was assured that I had had no visitors.
As time went by and the war rolled further into France, they were still taking metal out of me, and I despaired of ever rising and walking again. Mentally I alternated between periods of depression and relative calm, though sometimes I relapsed into the symptoms of shell shock whereby days and weeks would pass without my knowledge or memory. The doctors spoke hopefully of rehabilitation, that my right arm would be restored to at least three-quarter usage and that, in spite of my right knee, I should be able to get around with only the use of a stick. Of course, as far as they knew, that would be for the rest of my life. By then, April 6th. 1917, America had come into the war and the effect upon the morale of the allies was uplifting. The scale of the conflict began its slow and gradual tilt, though there were many that would never see a final victory, dying along the Menin Road in Ypres, and across the wide lands of Pas-de-Calais and Picardy.
During my convalescence I strove to overcome my disabilities, working with both hands so that I could use my left in compensation of the right. Even though I continued to suffer bouts of memory loss and blank periods where wakefulness was merely to sit staring vacantly at the walls, I managed to improve to a point where the medical authorities felt that I should be returned back to Paris, to the great Military hospital Val-de-Grace, where doctors were better able to oversee the worst of my long lasting wounds and mental condition.
Paris. September 1917. But it was not the Paris that I remembered before the war. This was a gaunt, jaundiced city. This was a city on the edge, prepared for subjugation. The French Government had long before, September 1914 to be exact, abandoned Paris and fled to Bordeaux after issuing a statement to the effect that the military had advised them to so do, and that they had done everything within their abilities to ensure the safety of the city, urging their fellow countrymen to remain steadfast in the face of the advancing enemy. It was to be noted by the hospital staff and visitors, with a certain amount of irony, that many French citizens did remain steadfast, whilst those at the highest levels of power removed themselves and their families from immanent danger only a month of so after the outbreak of war.
Letters from my parents and Aunt Jessica were scant because of the difficulties of the war, but at least I knew that they had been notified of my situation and that for the time being I was in safe hands. The staff at the hospital, although worked to the absolute limit, were as caring and efficient as could possibly be expected under the enormous load, whilst casualties continued to arrive in what seemed a never-ending stream of human misery and suffering. To alleviate the burden upon them, volunteers, almost all women, came to the hospital every day, taking over the menial tasks of washing bed-linen and scrubbing out toilets, laundries, kitchens and wards.
And it was on one such day, that Jolie came.
I was sitting in a bentwood chair staring down through a grimy window at the constant drizzle that raked the grey, near-empty street below, my mind numbly drifting in and out of morose consciousness and vacant wanderings on the borders of no-man's-land, when I gradually became aware of a hand upon my shoulder.
I don't know how long she had been standing there, a moment, an hour?
When I turned my head and slowly lifted my eyes I saw that she was gazing out of the window at the slate roof tops and the weathered sky beyond. 'Bonjour Monsieur,' she said softly, without taking her eyes from the wintry scene. For a time, it was all that I could do to hold back my tears. At last I managed to reach my hand to hers where it still rested on my shoulder, and so we remained, watching and waiting for the fall of night and the end of war. By pure chance, as it turned out, she had found me again.
She came to me often in the months before Christmas and this time we were able to speak, if somewhat awkwardly, in French, which she had picked up from the Nuns and the Sisters, first at The Children of Flanders house in Le Châteaux Viex, rue Saint-Denis, just outside of Paris and then at Sevres in the rue de la Sante where she had been living since February of that year.
It was a tonic that could not have been equalled by any medical intervention, and my mental condition began to show positive signs of improvement as I looked forward to her visits. Together we, and all the able patients of Val-de-Grace, celebrated Christmas of 1917 with a little feast provided by the hospital. It was meagre by normal standards because by then food of most kinds was at a premium and much of the fare we shared had been donated by patrons, even to a half bottle of champagne, and Jolie was intoxicated before she so much as took her first sip. There was laughter in her eyes as her nose wrinkled with the bubbles and through my hindered vision I believe I saw again the faintest sprinkle of freckles on that smiling, girlish face. Yet by then she was no longer a child. She had become a young lady of seventeen and even though the strain of the past three years and her estrangement from her homeland had left their mark, to my damaged artists' eyes there was no denying her emerging beauty.
Early in the new year of 1918, I received word from Aunt Jessie that, on behalf of the family, she had arranged for money to be made available to me in a French bank account bearing my name and that if necessary I could draw upon it whenever I required by sending along a note of authority. I felt so grateful over this because it was an empowering gesture that again gave me a feeling of some independence and responsibility, and the knowledge that my family awaited my return. I was not a failure. I had come to France to become a painter. But I could return home, at least, as a man.
A considerable amount of this money I pressed upon Jolie. I knew she had nothing, and was determined to see that she should have a little something to make her way. Reluctantly she accepted my offer, tearfully saying that she would employ it after the war in order to pay her passage back to Belgium in search of her family.
Six weeks later I was informed by the attending doctors at Val-de-Grace that I was to be repatriated back to England. By then, the German armies had intruded deep into France and were near the Oise river, only a matter of ninety miles from Paris.
We said our goodbyes, Jolie and I, on March 5th. 1918. It was...It was a terrible moment for me. I suddenly realised at that parting that she meant more than I could have imagined. Somehow she had become the lynch-pin of the past three years, the only constant of my life that had offered any hope to me. And I looked back across that time and saw her: the child, the girl, the blossoming woman...And I saw that it was over and we were to part. She was nearly eighteen and I was twenty-three.
'We will find each other again,' she told me in her simple, halting French. 'When all this war is finished and the Boche are beaten back and I have found my family, we will find each other and you will paint my portrait...'
A few days after making the channel crossing, I was installed at the East Suffolk and Ipswich Hospital in one of several wards set aside for shell-shock victims. My Mother and Father came down from Cumbria to see me there, as did Aunt Jessie in her usual fashion; bustling in from London, hugging everybody, me of course, and dispensing commands, packages and good wishes upon all and sundry. I seem to recall that, after they had departed, I burst into uncontrollable tears and hid beneath the covers for as long as I was able.
Later, when the news reached England, and eventually the hospital, of the shelling of Paris on March 23rd by the German long range gun 'Big Bertha,' and the casualties that followed, I found myself again weeping, tortured by the thought that Jolie might be amongst the victims. Not long after I suffered a relapse. Frustrated at my situation, my helplessness, my inability to control even my own emotions, I fell into deep depression; a melancholy so profound that months drifted by, family and friends came and went, and I remained in durance, unable to break free of the dolour that threatened to irreversibly overcome my mind.
And yet... And yet there remained still a something, still a glimmer...Something beyond and above and able to stroke deep...deep down, to stir the last vestiges of sanity and consciousness, to make me desire to reach out and touch...a splash of pale skin...straw coloured hair...laughing eyes...faintest freckles... Something to make me forget...no, to make me capable of accepting the broken bodies, the broken minds, the broken hearts and dreams...the terrible aching loss...
When it was over, when the Great War was finally ended on November eleventh, 1918, and almost 10,000,000 human beings were dead, countless more millions displaced, homeless, maimed and crippled, and further countless millions mentally scarred for the rest of their lives, the man who had sent his armies into battle and into history, Kaiser Wilhelm the Second, last Kaiser of Germany, abdicated two days before and began living a comfortable existence, exiled to Holland. He was not the only one, of course, who should have shouldered the blame for such global devastation: others, such as the victorious living were equally responsible, along with their vanquished enemies. And what of the man who had fired 'The two shots that were heard around the World?' Gavrio Princip, the lone Serbian assassin of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife on June 26th. 1914. in Sarajevo, which sparked the entire conflagration, coughed out his life at the age of twenty-four, dying of tuberculosis in a fortress prison months before, on the 28th April, 1918.
Weeks seemed like Autumn years, yet days at times, appeared as Springing months. Fortune, for me, after finally being discharged from the Ipswich hospital Suffolk, somewhere in Nineteen-nineteen, was to be taken back to London and to Aunt Jessie. What can I say about Aunt Jessica? She was Mother's dear, older, stalwart sister. Widowed since 1909, and well endowed by her deceased husband, she commanded property and stocks, whereas my own parents survived in a rural community, far away in the north, and could only get down to London at utmost need. Aunt Jessica took me in without complaint or second thought. It was agreed, even whilst I suffered and stumbled my way about her house, doddering like an old, unseeing man on a stick, without much reason or even rational mind, that I should remain there as long as my life might continue. Of course I knew nothing of those sentiments. They were privy only to my close family, and in any event, at that time I was not at all able to do much more than allow myself to be bathed and fed. I find it difficult now to consider how, as a grown man, my personal hygiene was affected, and yet I suspect that Aunt Jessie, alone, must have seen to even that.
It took several months of sun and light and watching the graceful arc of flocking birds and the humbling of the sun and the fearful sight of the sickle moon and sensations of drifting sleep and the constant shock of nightmare nights and nightmare days and daydreams and memories of the dying and the living and nearly dying and nearly living and clawing against walls and screaming to get free of tightening boxes and watching the relentless rain...
1920. After a long period of convalescence, staying at Aunt Jessica's well-to-do home in South Kensington, attended then by a day-time nurse, I managed a semblance of recovery.
Later, Aunt Jessica managed to find a position for me at a small London Gallery, Margreaves and Associates, Acquisitioners of Fine Pieces and Works of Art. The work was monotonous: cataloguing, labelling, filing, dispatching and receiving, and fortunately not beyond my ability at the time.
I could not say how long my life might endure. I felt destitute. I was alone within myself. I worked at what I did. I went out. I stayed in. Every time I put my head down, I wondered... Sleep was, by then, a good thing. Otherwise I thought about those days in Paris, before the war...I... It wasn't sensible to think too much. Nothing could be gained there. There was the war, which to me now, is pretty clouded. It is like a faded memory, yet lurks as a subconscious nightmare. And at the time I was sure that the legacy of the Great War was bound to be my death.
Eventually, during the summer of Nineteen twenty-one, I went back to Paris. Modigliani was dead. His passion had flared out and his excesses had at last destroyed him. He had died in the Hospital de la Charite, January twenty-five, Nineteen-twenty, aged thirty six. His wife, Jeanne Hebuterne; sometime model and mother of his daughter, pregnant with a second child, had thrown herself out of a fifth floor window in the rue Amyot on hearing of his death. Picasso was working on, establishing a reputation.
I recovered what scant little was left of my few possessions, stored for me after all those years, still in the cellars of the wine house. To my astonishment, the building yet stood, having changed hands several times during and after the war, and in the dark recesses of the basement, tucked away amongst an accumulation of detritus caused by sludge and rising damp, I came upon the remains of my works. All my sketchbooks and most of the paintings were mouldy or rat-fouled beyond salvation, the oils had hardened in their tubes and my pig bristle and sable brushes were rusted in the heels and too far gone to be of further use. My two old easels had rotted at their feet, but the remainder of the paintings had escaped the depredations of seven years in that dank and gloomy hole. I arranged to have what was left packed and sent off to London and went back to my hotel for a stiff drink and dinner. And as I sat alone in a booth toying with a soft, palatable Beaujolais and staring at the remains of a meal I had not the heart or the appetite to complete, I thought long and hard about what I should do next. I wanted to go home, I knew that much. Paris was over for me. In Nineteen Fourteen I had been a part of the bohemian, vagabond existence that was a way of life for artists infesting the basement hovels and garrets of the city like so many snittering, ambitious, yet unguided mice. That there were some amongst them who had great talent there was no doubt, although I am now certain, most were never to see their talent win through and lived their entire lives in absolute obscurity; their treasured works, much like my own, destined to be consigned to the scrap-heap of history. At least, I consoled myself, I had a sound position in London. And I was still at the periphery of the art world as a researcher, appraiser and, now, occasional buyer of works in Europe and England for Margreaves, one of the smaller, though fashionable galleries.
And yet... And yet, somehow, she had spoiled me. Spoiled me in ways I am not able to say. I could not think of other women. I could look at them, admire them, perhaps even consider how I might attempt to paint their portraits, though do no more than that. Did I say she? Of course I meant Jolie. I always mean Jolie. Somehow, this girl with the almost freckled face had consumed...no...had captured me so that I seldom went a few days without thinking, feeling, wanting to see her, to watch her sitting silent in a rose garden, trying so hard to remain still, yet bursting with energy, vitality and curiosity to see what I had drawn of her. I desired greatly to find her. But I could discover no trace. The records of the Croix-Rouge offered little else to follow. She had been listed as an unqualified, Belgian refugee, serving at the front in Nineteen Fifteen and again as a Nurse Proper the following year. No further information was available. It was the same at The Children of Flanders Rescue homes at Sevres and the Villa Bethanie and La Chateau Viex. They had no record of her beyond March 1918. As one of the Flemish Sisters told me, 'She was by then eighteen years of age and said she had enough money to support herself. We were not able to force her to remain with us. Monsieur, she was a young woman...'
The war had ended three years before, and if Jolie was still alive, I could only conclude that she had returned to Belgium in search of her own family. I missed her. I never dreamed that I could grieve for someone, another human being, so badly. She had been lost In France, and now I was lost; totally and irretrievably. Though I was lost, in all the world.
Coming home to England toward the end of summer, I resumed my duties at Margreaves, now residing in a small apartment only a few blocks away. Of course I had to get about with the aid of a cane, though I enjoyed my morning and evening walks to and from, no matter what the weather. During the years following, I made various art-seeking forays out of London and out of the country into Europe. I visited Naples and Venice, Budapest, Brussels and Berlin. Yet in those latter Capitals of Belgium and Germany, I found no information or clue as to what might have become of Jolie or her family.
I returned to France on several occasions, and whilst I had time to myself between my working essays, I visited old haunts, both in the city and out into the countryside. I went to French Flanders and beyond, into the Vlaanderen of Belgian. I went to the Menin Road and the silent graveyards that littered the countryside; rows and rows of white picket crosses, baring mute witness to the carnage of that dreadful time. I saw names in those places that I could remember; men I had actually known, for months, for minutes. Often, I honoured them with my tears, standing alone amongst the long, white lines of the dead. And a song of the time haunted me. She is watching by the poplars, Colinette with the sea blue eyes, She is watching and longing and waiting Where the long white roadway lies.
And a song that stirs in the silence, As the wind in the boughs above. She listens and starts and trembles. 'Tis the first little song of love...
Roses are shining in Picardy, In the hush of the silvery dew. Roses are flowering in Picardy, But there's never a rose like you!
And the roses will die with the summertime, And our paths may be far apart, But there's one rose that dies not in Picardy! 'Tis the rose that I keep in my heart!"
And the years fly on forever, 'Til shadows veil their skies, But he loves to hold her little hands And look in her sea blue eyes.
And she sees the road by the poplars, Where they met in the bygone years, For the first little song of the roses Is the last little song she hears:
Roses are shining in Picardy, In the hush of the silvery dew. Roses are flowering in Picardy, But there's never a rose like you!
And the roses will die with the summertime, And our hearts may be far apart, But there's one rose that dies not in Picardy! 'Tis the rose that I keep in my heart!
1924. As I am able to recall it, late one wintry afternoon I was working alone in my office, squinting through a large magnifying lens, illuminated be an adjustable lamp at my shoulder. Between my hands, on a green baize coverlet, lay one of Claude Monet's many beautiful studies of his garden in Giverny. I admired the tranquillity of the work, such serene tones rendered with brush strokes of light and shade and shimmering colour and I recall how pleased I was at this extraordinary acquisition, when a soft knocking interrupted my reverie.
'Someone asking for you Sir,' said one of the gallery staff. 'I was requested to give you this.' The man held out a large manila envelope. Taking it from his grasp, I thanked him and closed the door. Returning to my desk I took up a brass paper knife and slit the packet open. There was a single, crumpled sheet inside. Withdrawing it, I saw what appeared to be some kind of French medical document; rows of columns and faded ink notations. My heart began to pound as I turned the stained, yellowed paper over and looked down at a rough crayon drawing, sketched some eight or nine years before, and I limped across to the door as fast as I could manage upon my stick. My hand fell upon the handle, and momentarily I paused, breathing heavily, my mind spinning. Beyond that oak panel, I was sure, stood a girl...a women whom I had longed for, for all the years between us. And I was dismayed. What could she want of me? Why would she have bothered to search for me? Was it really her, or some messenger with a tale of her life's loss?
I wrenched the door open.
They had gone. The freckles had vanished or faded, or had never been. But Jolie, beneath her smart navy-blue and white driver's cap stood there looking so fresh and pale and earnest, and all that I could do was to stare at her. My cane, I think, clattered to the floor, unheeded.
'I find you now, once again, Monsieur. Will you not paint my portrait?' she said in English, a gentle smile spreading across her concerned features.
I drew her in, and drew her to me. 'Yes, yes, I will paint your portrait,' I whispered.
And where had Jolie been in the years since the latter part of Nineteen-Eighteen? At first she had found a position with the French embassy as a driver until war's end, and then, in 1919, made her way back to Belgium in search of her family. Eventually she had located her Grandmother at a home for the invalided war refugees in Koln. There she learned that her own mother had died of pneumonia in a German civilian detainee camp. Of her father and brother there was no record, both presumed missing in action against the invading forces.
In a tiny apartment, which was all she could afford, Jolie continued to nurse her grandmother until the old lady's death in nineteen twenty-two. After that, after the loss of the last of her immediate family, she turned her attention toward her own well-being. She returned to France and found work with the League of Nations, learning enough of the English language to get by, and eventually crossing the channel, taking a position as driver for the French Legation posted in London.
Again, she was alone, and all she had left to her was a crumpled, crayon drawing, and a name. My name.
I began this tale by saying that it could be a story about war, but instead it is a story about love on two fronts. 'Love in Peace,' and 'Love in War.'
In War and Peace, there is still Love.
My little Picardy Rose is playing with her white kitten in the late afternoon sunlight that slants lazily through tall windows dappling the lemon and green of the poppy-design carpet, to where Jolie rests on the cushioned, red velvet window-seat, gazing out at mossy lawns and the budding rose-arbour beyond. The quiet strains of popular dance music issue forth from the cabinet of our Blackwood wireless where it stands in a corner of the room. I sit at my desk, writing these words and occasionally pausing to look up and watch the childish antics, but my gaze always strays to her, to Jolie framed in profile, her slender form draped, arm extended along the sill, legs tucked beneath the pale cascade of her silken shawl. My heart seems to beat just that much faster, so that breath comes in irregular pauses, like the sobs of someone so brim-filled with joy that it becomes almost beyond measure.
'Will you draw my Nanette kitty for me, please Papa?' Rose asks. And I tell her, 'Perhaps, tomorrow I will draw your Nanette, Ma Cher. I am altogether too tired this afternoon.' And she says, 'Will you paint my picture when I am all grown up, like you did for Maman?' And I say to her, 'Of course I shall, Dearest.' 'Will you wait for me?' she pursues. 'I will wait for you, my beautiful Rose, just as long as I am able.'
Satisfied, she returns to her delights with the furry, white creature and I lift my eyes to Jolie. She has not shifted in her position, except for the delicate turn of her face; her gaze is bent benevolently toward our daughter, yet with a subtle lift of her brows, her eyes meet mine. I smile at her and feel the warmth of her returned smile wash over me like a wave shot through with shards of sunlight that pierce me to my innermost depths.
Then she slowly inclines her head again to the vista beyond and I bend my attention toward recording these moments in my writings. Such special, precious, bittersweet moments that overwhelm me with awe and reverence at how truly wonderful life can be. My eyes seek out two framed oils, mounted together above the walnut side table. I had placed them there so as to catch the last of the sun's rays at eventide and now I have to squint to make out the detail, though of course I know every curve and contour, every brushstroke, every pigment used, and satisfaction lifts me on the wellsprings of a single sigh. There is my Picardy Rose, at age five, and there, there are the real freckles on my daughter's smiling, innocent face. It was painted only months ago, and now it is together with the portrait of Jolie, 'Girl with the almost freckled face.' I had completed it early in the year of the birth of our Daughter. Both are light-filled, rendered against backgrounds of pastel hued flowers; the first in the gardens Jolie now watches into sunset. And the latter, Jolie's portrait, executed in another garden, a garden not so very far from Monet's own in Giverny where Jolie and I, holidaying in Vernon, had stayed a few weeks. During that dream-like time, when the faded ghosts of a long concluded war haunted the midnight margins of my mind, both Rose, our dear sweet child, and Jolie's portrait were conceived. And now those two paintings, and these precious, living beings are with me.
Softly, the radio is playing a Ray Noble melody of this year, Nineteen Thirty-Three, and as Al Bowly croons, I hurry to scribble down the lyrics that seem so suited to Rose-Picardy, and to my Jolie.
'Love is the sweetest thing What else on earth could ever bring Such happiness to ev'rything As Love's old story.
Love is the strangest thing No song of birds upon the wing Shall in our hearts more sweetly sing Than Love's old story.
Whatever heart may desire Whatever fate may send This is the tale that never will tire. This is the song without end.
Love is the greatest thing The oldest yet, the latest thing I only hope that fate may bring Love's story to you.'
I am content
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