November 21, 2017
17 December 1900
At last, some daylight.
The sun broke through in the afternoon, following two days of thick black clouds and downpours that had him spending his holiday running from doorway to café canopy. Now, finally, he could paint.
He unpacked his canvas and set up his easel on the path that ran along the blue ribbon of sea between Nice and Monaco. Mixing his oils, he gazed at the vista before him, acquainting himself with the particular shades of sunlight and the way they teased both color and shape from the land. Already he’d painted a good deal of the distant village, and in just two days’ time. A wonderful two days, he thought, in which he got thoroughly lost in his composition while occasionally humming a forgotten adagio. He worked without interruption, oblivious to everything around him. Thinking of nothing, only colors, tones, rims, and borders. Fellow visitors may have passed by him as he worked, or not.
Villefranche clustered under the soft gold dust of the sun’s rays breaking through the last cloud cover left by the passing storm. It was built up against a striated wall of rust-colored rock some six hundred feet high. Above the tile roofs of the homes and the cathedral, wispy tendrils lifted from the cooking fires of restaurants and cafés. Gulls soared down from the ledge in a tight arrow, passing the zigzagging switchback trails carved into the cliff face. In the light they resembled falling bodies clad in white. Their shadows bent across the cliffs as they abruptly pulled out of their dives just before hitting the foaming waves. They flew close, their outstretched wings ruffling the surface of the sea. The wind they rode was cold and strong.
He weighted his easel with smooth stones, then daubed at the cliff paths with a mix of sienna and bay to catch the effect of the last days’ rains. As he worked, enjoying the pleasant briskness of the air and the faint sounds of Villefranche’s townspeople emerging from their homes, he took notice of a sleek canot drifting in on the tide toward the natural stone jetty that stood as the town’s lone port. Such an unremarkable thing, visitors on an outing to the Mediterranean town. The area had gained a reputation for its agreeable weather, its flourishing casinos and fine hotels. The fact that the boat he spied was filled stem to stern with finely dressed ladies in broad seaside hats and immaculate dresses of milk and wheat shouldn’t have held his attention for more than a moment. And yet he couldn’t reclaim the sense of disappearing into his work that he craved, not while the ornate canot drifted toward land.
Muttering curses at his own inability to concentrate, he watched the ladies gather around a figure on the canot, a woman dressed entirely in black. It seemed that they were trying to shield her. The chill, he thought, or the prying eyes of others. Perhaps she was someone of note.
He’d come to Villefranche from Paris for the same reason he always did. The city would grow too hot, too cold, or too close, and he’d find that he needed to step away from his days living and working in the Marais to be alone at the water’s edge, staring at the low leaden horizon line. There had been far too many tourists on his last few visits, and he’d begun considering other destinations he could escape to before deciding to give this spot one last chance.
In any event, it was best to catch the light before him while it lasted. If he just set to working again, he felt confident that he’d make progress.
The painted cliff paths looked good, so he turned his attention to the cove at the base of the village. An excuse to watch the canot, its oars lifted in surrender to the pull of the tide.
A local piloted it, he could tell. They knew how fruitless it was to row once they got close to the stone jetty.
I’ll watch just a bit longer, he decided. Maybe this is a new painting, presenting itself to me.
The black-clad figure struggled to her feet. She was immediately surrounded by the finely dressed women.
A rich invalid, no doubt.
He selected a thin horsehair brush and daubed a bit of gray on Villefranche itself, on its narrow sidewalks that a grown man could span wall to wall with outstretched arms, its descending stairways, down to the sea path and the first shades of aqua. The woman in black got out of the canot, assisted by the others. Her baggy, overly billowing clothing was in fact a formal dress. It was dark and jeweled with some sort of stone that ignited from the sunlight. The woman herself appeared small, stooped, unsteady, and slow.
A rich, old invalid, he thought with a shake of his head. Still, he couldn’t stop staring. A sense of unease slowly rose in him. This is ridiculous, he thought, but the feeling wouldn’t go away. As the rest of the elderly woman’s entourage stepped onto the jetty, a second boat floated in. It was as full as hers had been, with similarly dressed women. They got out en masse, dislodging the feral cats sunning themselves atop and between the jetty stones. So this was some sort of idyllic invasion—the first wave of dowagers on holiday marching their staffs across the path to the small-stakes baccarat tables in Monaco.
He tried to amuse himself, but his hands were trembling. Without being aware, he’d put down his brush. He was stepping away from his canvas, gazing around his position on the path for places to hide. It had been years since he felt so conspicuous and exposed. A voice from long ago filled his head.
We could run.
Calm yourself, he thought. What will passersby think of me? A Negro among good white faces, searching for where to go to ground like a criminal. There’s no reason for this. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Nothing.
He stared at the black-clad figure until she was close enough to make out.
Dear god, it’s her. Victoria, queen of England.
The shuffling old woman’s companions produced parasols. One held hers high above her head, blocking the sun and extinguishing the flare that burst from the queen’s crown.
Move, you idiot, before she sees you.
He ran for cover behind a tall row of wild heather. From there he spied her no more than twenty feet away. Those few villagers out walking were now realizing who moved among them, as if such a thing were normal. They bowed and curtsied and cheered her. La reine! La reine Victoria!
God, how old she’d become. How ungraceful. Time, he thought, wins every argument.
It was her daughter Louise who held the parasol up like a shield against the insistent sun. More than thirty years had passed since he’d last seen either of them at Windsor and suddenly there they were, walking together in another country and not fifty feet from him. Behind them came the usual downstairs help, brought from their normal posts in liveries and dressing rooms out into the light. A lady-in-waiting, a footman, a valet. No one he knew anymore.
The queen walked toward the shoreline, passing his easel while her entourage huddled together against the wind. She lingered a moment at his painting, studying it and smiling wistfully. She looked around for the artist, but he was well hidden.
At the sea, the queen stared at the coming tide. Clouds crept in from the south, covering the sun. The light dwindled. Villefranche by the sea descended into the steely gloom he’d grown used to over the last days.
He remembered that way the queen had of losing herself in her surroundings. Watching her, he wondered if she ever thought of him anymore. Perhaps the passage of all those years had finally swept his name away.
Her time alone lasted fifteen minutes, maybe longer. As the breeze grew bitter, Louise covered her mother’s shoulders with an ermine wrap. The queen leaned against her daughter for support. They returned together to the sea path. There, the queen paused again near the painting. Fleetingly, he thought he saw something alight in her expression. Then it was gone, replaced by a familiar stony resolve.
“Are you well?” he heard the princess ask. “You look pale, Mother. Perhaps we should return home.”
“No.” The queen’s voice was hushed and trembling. “Let us have our holiday. We ought not allow the odd memory to ruin our time.”
“Memory? Is something troubling you?”
“No more than any day.”
Together they continued toward the path and soon to the crags of the jetty, where their entourage split into two. The larger group clambered onto the waiting boats. The canot pilots poled them away from land, onto the swelling crests of the port current. The remaining few walked behind the queen and princess.
Every so often, the queen paused to rest. Her servant staff waited, heads bowed, for her to move again.
Well, of course, he thought. She’s old. Ill, maybe. Nothing and no one is forever. Feeling a pang for someone I haven’t seen in three decades is sentimental and foolish. Any moment, the queen and princess would be so far away that they’d never see him, and he could emerge from his hiding place and pick up where he’d left off, carrying on as if nothing had happened.
Yet he wanted to cry out to her, to see if she’d turn around. She would come back to him. What would she say? What would he? Your Majesty, you can’t simply appear as if out of a cloud, rain down all that you carry that rightfully belongs to me—the names, the faces, the nights—only to leave while these memories invade me without regard for my life to demand that I find a place for them. You can’t.
When she was merely a speck on the path alongside the light-dappled sea, he emerged from the hedgerow and told himself that it was time to go. There’d be no more painting and it was useless to pretend otherwise. His focus and desire were gone. Tomorrow, he’d get things sorted. Yes, he’d seen her, true enough, and maybe some memories were dusting themselves off and presenting themselves, but that was all. Nothing had changed. It didn’t matter. He could simply paint in the early morning, return to Paris on the evening train, arrive near dawn a few hours sleep, then unpack and resume the day’s work, and the next. The life he’d made was still there, waiting for him. He was in no danger of being revealed.
He didn’t hear the villagers’ excited talk of glimpsing the queen, or the sea that had silently brought her here. Only his panicking heart and long-ago words ringing as clear as the bell at Saint-Paul. What is love, in the end?
Love is language.
He packed his easel, then turned around on the path that led back to his villa and walked along the sea, trailing the queen until she came to a far dock near one of the fine hotels dotting the coastline. There, she stopped again. In time, she gathered the strength to go inside. By evening, she hadn’t come back out. It was over, this unexpected unearthing of old things from another, far different life. All he had to do was leave.
He took a seat on a rusted seaside bench and watched lights come up in the hotel windows. Over the course of the night those lights extinguished. The storm clouds returned but didn’t bring rain, only a covering that smothered the stars and took the light away.
He could scarcely make out the contours of his hand, held up to the sky. It was as if he’d been erased from the world.
Somewhere inside, the queen slept. He wondered if the ghosts of her own past gathered around her as they did around him. When she departed in the bright morning, he was still there.
For the next three days, he followed her throughout France.
DAVID ROCKLIN is the author of The Luminist and the founder/curator of Roar Shack, a monthly reading series in Los Angeles. He was born and raised in Chicago and now lives in LA with his wife, daughters and a 150-lb Great Dane who seriously needs to stay on his own bed. He’s currently at work on his next novel, The Electric Love Song of Fleischl Berger.
Adapted from The Night Language, by David Rocklin, Copyright © 2017 by David Rocklin. With the permission of the publisher, Rare Bird Books.