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Portrait of the Past: Chapter One

Marguerite always arrived early on market day. She had no booth, only a small awning to protect her customers from the hot southern sun. Two chairs, a small table. Her dark  hands quickly laid out the tools of her trade—oval disks of sanded ivory, bits of velvet ribbon, a drawing pad. Pastels. Fine tipped brushes. Paint.

She studiously ignored the mutters of a few of the other early risers. Some would like to drive her from the market, she knew. But hers was a luxury item—no competition for the farm goods and crafts of the others. Still, she was colored, and that was enough for some. Her sex offered her some protection, it seemed - even the most profound bigot scrupled to harass a woman alone. At least here, in front of others.

She set out her samples, lingering over one miniature portrait, painted long ago. A girl she would never see again, nor did she wish to. She wondered why she kept it—not for sentimental reasons, certainly. Well, it was a good likeness. She put the miniature in its stand, and sat down with her sketchpad to await her customers.

Market days were slow—she had better customers setting up near the docks when the ships were in, but sometimes a vacationer or one of the many who came to this southern seashore for its healing effects would stop by. It was an outmoded sort of remembrance she fashioned, but one still desired by some.

A woman walked through the market, shopping basket hanging on her arm. She paused a few steps away from Marguerite’s awning, looking thoughtful, and Marguerite absently sketched her. Dark, wiry hair, only partly contained in the net that secured it, skin darkened by the sun, but not recently—the crow’s feet around the bespectacled eyes were earned. She wore a well-cut cotton dress, simple in design, yet elegantly worn. Not a farmer’s wife, then - a vacationer, but not of the usual sort. Marguerite was intrigued and offered a smile. The woman smiled warmly back and approached the table. “These are lovely, so vibrant. How long does it take?”

“About an hour of your time, a day or two of mine,” Marguerite replied. “Would you like one for your...” she almost said “husband”, but noted the large sapphire ring the woman wore on her left hand—no wedding band, so she corrected herself, “...sweetheart?”

The woman frowned thoughtfully. “Maybe. It might make a nice wedding present. I’ve been wondering what I could possibly give him that he doesn’t already have.”

“You’re getting married soon?”

The woman nodded, turning sparkling green eyes on Marguerite. “In June—when school is out. I’m a teacher, you see.”

Something about this woman both intrigued and repelled Marguerite—the sparkling eyes, the easy manner, but the aversion? Then she realized—the woman’s voice had a familiar timbre. Marguerite tamped down her distaste. After all, not everyone from the South...

“Yes,” the woman interrupted Marguerite’s thoughts, “I want one.” She sat down in the chair opposite. “How much?”

Marguerite sized her up—whatever the market would bear. “Twenty dollars.”

“Oh, dear,” the woman frowned. “I don’t have that much with me. I could come back later?”

“No need,” Marguerite said. “A small deposit will do.”

“All right.” The woman opened her purse and handed Marguerite a five dollar gold piece. “Is this enough?”

She didn’t even haggle. Maybe I should have asked for more. Marguerite put the coin in her pocket and shrugged. She was already charging twice her usual price, best not to be too greedy. “Yes, of course.” She took up the pad and opened the box of pastels.

“Wait.” The woman tugged off her hair net. The wiry curls cascaded over her shoulders, down her back. “Clay likes me with my hair down.”

I shouldn’t wonder. Marguerite was arrested for a moment herself. “Of course.” She took up a dark pastel. “Miss... ?”

“Oh, I haven’t introduced myself, have I?” The woman tossed back her head and laughed. “Molly Holt.” She offered her hand.

“Marguerite Dumas,” Marguerite responded, taking the proffered hand.

Molly’s eyes lit up. “Dumas? Like the author?”

“Yes, but I’m no relation.” Marguerite quickly began sketching. “You’re from Kentucky,” she said before she could stop herself.

“You can tell? Most people say I’ve lost all my accent—it’s been so long since I left home.”

“A mere trace, and I have a good ear.” Marguerite flushed.

“You’ve lost nearly all your French accent, too.” Molly crossed her hands on her lap. “May I ask what brings you all the way out here to San Diego?”

“Oh, I came to see your beautiful country.” It’s not wholly a lie. “But I caught pneumonia in Colorado, and had to come here for my health.”

Molly’s brows knit in concern. “Oh, dear. Are you recovered?”

“Quite recovered,” Marguerite assured her. “In need of money for my travels, but well, thank you. What brings you here?”

Molly shifted in her chair, then stopped. “I’m sorry, I should sit still, shouldn’t I?”

“No. I can better capture you if you act naturally. If I need you to hold still, I will ask you.”

Molly smiled. “Oh, well then. I’m not good at being still. But as to what brings me here—Clay and I were down visiting his sister, but he got called back to Modesto on a case. He’s a lawyer, you see.”

“He left you alone?”

“No, with his sister, but,” Molly frowned, “he’s very conscientious. Much like my first husband.”

“You’re a widow?” Marguerite bit her tongue as soon as she had spoken. Why am I so curious?

“Yes, he was killed in The War,” Molly said sadly.

“I’m sorry,” Marguerite apologized. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

“It’s all right,” Molly looked down at her hands. “It was a long time ago.” She inhaled deeply. “And here I am, about to begin a new life, after all this time.” She absently touched the lines around her eyes. “Although I don’t know what Clay sees in me. He could have any woman he wanted.”

Marguerite looked down at her sketches. “Perhaps I can show you.”

“No flattering portrait can countermand what I see in the mirror every morning,” Molly chided. “I know I’m plain. And I just turned forty.”

“A good portrait can reach below the surface.”

“So I’ve heard,” Molly smiled. “You may try, but a good likeness is all I’m paying you for.”

“I shall.” Marguerite gathered up her drawings. “Come back day after tomorrow and I should have it ready for you.”

“You paint from sketches?” Molly asked, surprised.

“Don’t worry,” Marguerite assured her. “I have an excellent visual memory.” Too vivid a memory. “This is how I work.”

“All right.” Molly stood, offering her hand again. “Day after tomorrow then.”

Marguerite gathered up her things, took down her awning and made her way back to the rooming house she occupied. She washed up, then sat down, gazing at the blank ivory circle that was her canvas. She sighed and picked up her brush.

“You may be a painter, mon cherie, but you will never be an artiste.”

Marguerite’s head snapped up—she could almost hear Armand’s words, spoken years ago.

“I’m the best student at the atelier,” Marguerite protested. “Monsieur Pierre says so.”

“The best painter,” Armand repeated, “but your heart, it is cold. Nothing touches your canvas but paint. There is no fire. I love you too much to lie to you, mon amour.”

“But not enough not to insult me,” she pouted.

Armand took her hand. “Marguerite, my little daisy, I have tried to ignite the flame of love in your heart, but to no avail. You do not love, you do not hate. There is no passion in you at all.”

“I do love you,” she protested. “You know I do.”

“You do not,” he insisted. “You love nothing, not even yourself. You should go home—perhaps there you may find what you need. It is not here—you have been in Paris long enough to have found it if it were.”

“I have no home. I never did.”

Armand tutted. “Everyone has a home. You must find it. Then, perhaps, you may become what you wish to be. Not before.”

Marguerite’s hand trembled. She put down her brush, shook her head to clear it, then resolutely took up her brush again. Now was not the time for such doubts—she had a commission to fulfill. She filled her mind’s eye with Molly’s green eyes and began to paint.

She sat back, unsatisfied. She dipped the miniature in her bucket, washing it clean, prepared to start over. She contemplated her sketches, seeing Molly again in her mind’s eye. No simple daub was going to satisfy, not for this subject. She wet her brush and dipped it in burnt umber, washing the color over the ivory. Chiaroscuro—it was a painstaking technique, one she had not used for years, but this time...well, perhaps twenty dollars was not too much to ask, after all.

She felt a frenzy seize her. She painted all night, layering wash after wash across the ivory. Burnt umber and sepia for the skin, emerald for the eyes, blue-black and violet for the hair. Her lamp was sputtering when she finished—she extinguished it and got up to open the drapes. She picked up the miniature by the edges and examined it critically. Yes, she had done it. She nodded in satisfaction, then frowned to herself. What was it about this plain, ordinary woman that excited such strong feelings? She knit her brow. Something...she could not catch it, though she tried, in vain. She sighed and put the miniature back in its holder to dry before she applied the clear lacquer that would protect the colors.

She should sleep since she had been up all night, but she found her bed particularly unappealing. No need to go to the docks, she had plenty of money. She took up her sketchbook, her pastels and her hat and made her way down to the seashore.

She walked along the sands, climbed over the rocks, looking for a vista to draw, but she could not settle. Armand’s assessment was fresh in her mind—she shuddered. It was not true that she could not feel, it was only true that she tried not to. Emotion had never brought her anything but agony, but something was stirring in her now, and she did not understand why. She wasted several hours in these ruminations, her mind running in circles like a mouse on a wheel. Finally, she returned to her room.

The painting was thoroughly dry, and as she carefully lacquered it, she contemplated the likeness once more. Molly looked out at her, the image full of warmth and good humor. It was good, the best work she had done in years. The question that haunted her was, “Why?”

She threw herself on her bed and tossed and turned for a few hours until dinnertime, when she realized she had eaten nothing yet that day. This was unlike her—she had always been of strong appetite. She sighed and went out for dinner, returning only to find a fitful sleep until the morrow.

She arrived early at the market, setting up her awning but not bothering to set out her samples. She sat down with some knitting and found that the rhythm of the needles calmed her admirably. As she saw Molly scurrying toward her, she was able to present her usual serene demeanor.

“Is it done?” Molly asked excitedly.

“Yes.” Marguerite opened the pasteboard box she had stored the miniature in, carefully cushioned with cotton wool.

Molly gasped. “Oh, my, it’s exquisite. You flatter me.”

“Not at all,” Marguerite assured her. “I hope I have captured you.”

Molly took the box and examined the painting more closely. “Well, it’s a thing of beauty, anyway,” she smiled. “I do believe you’ve outdone yourself.”

“I do believe I have,” Marguerite agreed, returning Molly’s smile. She had known it was good, but still Molly’s praise warmed her.

Molly reached into her purse, took out three five dollar gold pieces and handed them to Marguerite. “Wait,” she said, rummaging in her purse and taking out another. “I think you deserve a bonus.”

Marguerite looked at the coin hungrily, then pushed Molly’s hand away. “No, I’m well-paid. Go have it mounted—there’s a jeweler in town who does excellent work.”

Molly shrugged and noted down the address Marguerite gave her. “Thank you. This will be a most excellent wedding gift.”

“I wish you all the best,” Marguerite said. “I hope you shall be very happy.”

“I shall,” Molly grinned, offering her hand. “It was very nice to meet you, Miss Dumas. I wish you well.”

“Thank you,” Marguerite said.

Molly took her miniature and departed. Marguerite watched her go, still wondering what it was about the woman that had roused her so, but hoping she would never know.

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