Thursday, November 20, 2008

M. Villemain's Painting

Excerpt, Chapter Eight: Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural

On Sunday I went to visit Alexandra. She seemed to me a little pale and subdued. When I asked after her health, she told me, “I am well enough, but I have had a very curious adventure.”

One of the guests presently staying at the house of the Supreme Gnosis is a landscape artist from Paris, called M. Jacques Villemain. Alexandra seems quite smitten, although of course she will not admit to this. She describes him as a tall, pale, rather solemn young man with an unworldly air, “not at all like an artiste Parisien.”

He was a mystic, he informed Alexandra, though not religious, and he invited Alexandra to his room so that she could see some of his work. His landscapes, he said, had a secret reality that ordinary people could not perceive. Of course Alexandra, who is insatiably curious, was intrigued; though she did not think the English would approve of her visiting a young man alone in his room. However, he reassured her, saying that the adepts of the Supreme Gnosis regarded such conventions as absurd and in any case, all Gnostics were pure in spirit.

“Besides,” he said in all seriousness,” I will leave the door ajar ”-- which made Alexandra laugh.

All she saw at first were simple landscapes. “They seemed accomplished enough, with a certain charm, though whether they were anything out of the ordinary I was not qualified to judge. But M. Villemain urged me to look deeper, and gradually I began to see the paintings with different eyes. It was, as he said, as though another, stranger reality hovered just beneath the surface.”

Everywhere Alexandra looked -- at rocks, flowers, bushes, mountains -- she saw an unsettling double image. In one painting a vast deserted heath stretched away to the edge of a lake, with snow-capped peaks rising out of the mist beyond. All across the heath were slender indistinct forms that were at once trees or bushes, and at the same time something else. I saw her shiver a little as she went on, “Somehow they had become men, or animals, and as they looked out at me their faces were full of cunning and a dreadful malice. At that moment I felt quite terrified.”

But needless to say Alexandra’s curiosity overcame her fear, and she reached out to touch the picture. As she did so, M. Villemain suddenly cried out, “Be careful. You could be pulled in.”

“Into what?” she asked in alarm.

“Into the landscape. It is dangerous.”

By now I was quite caught up in this strange story. I leaned forward in excitement. “And what happened then?”

Alexandra shrugged. “That is all that happened. I felt all at once overcome with a terrible fatigue. And so we went downstairs for toast and tea.”

I longed for more. It was as though Alexandra had strayed to the edge of faerie, and returned to tell me only half the tale.

She laughed, as though to dismiss it all as fancy, but there was an edge to her laughter that told me the experience had left her shaken. In truth, I am beginning to fear a little for Alexandra, in case her boldness and her curiosity may take her into places better left unexplored.

(Painting by Albert Pinkham Ryder, courtesy of wikimedia commons)