Monet's Angels - Chapter One: Robert

He saw her before she saw him, indistinct in the smoky atmosphere, and somehow he knew it was the American girl. She was talking to a porter and, as he approached, she raised her voice to compete with the hissing steam.
‘How much? How much?’
Robert stepped forward. ‘Miss Judith Goldstein?’ He lifted his cap. ‘Robert Harrison.’
She whirled round, laughing with pleasure. ‘Oh Mr Harrison, I’m so relieved to see you. When I got off the train there didn’t seem to be anybody waiting for me. I thought perhaps… oh, I don’t know… maybe there’d been some mistake about the day.’
‘Hopeless places for rendezvous, railroad stations. You’d think they’d find a more twentieth century way of stoking trains,’ he grinned.
The blue-smocked porter was hovering.
‘What’s all this about?’ asked Robert, switching easily to the man’s patois.
‘They are big these baggage,’ the man said. ‘Very big.’
‘That is not the point. There is a set rate, we all know that.’
‘Well?’ demanded the young woman.
‘He’s trying to get away with charging you extra.’
‘Oh don’t worry about the money,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t that. It wasn’t that at all, it was… well… I just couldn’t understand him.’
Her voice was low and well modulated with just a hint of Yankee to it, he thought.
‘Don’t you fret. Now you’re here, you’ll be speaking French like a native in no time at all.’
Her dark eyes widened. ‘But I do. I do speak French.’
He wanted to say, yeah, but the French you probably learned in an expensive finishing school is nothing like that spoken in a provincial Normandy town but instead he instructed the porter to bring the trunk and two travelling bags to the front of the station.
‘And do be careful, they are Louis Vuitton,’ she tried in her careful French.
Robert translated and the man grunted and pushed her luggage roughly onto his trolley, jostling it against other more modest items. Robert noticed a brown cardboard-looking case and thought how incongruous it seemed cheek by jowl with the trefoil-patterned trunk. The porter trundled his load towards the exit.
‘Horrible little man, he hasn’t taken the slightest bit of notice. My poor Vuitton.’
‘You seem mighty fond of them,’ Robert smiled. ‘They’ll be fine, I assure you.’
‘Oh, I hope so. I really do.’
She turned to gaze at him and he was startled by her intensity, the inflection of her voice and expression in her eyes. He had a feeling that this defined her whether it was the fate of her baggage, her inability to make herself understood by the porter or something far more profound. He was intrigued.
‘You’re staring, Mr Harrison,’ she commented.
‘I beg your pardon, Miss Goldstein.’
‘No, I like people staring at me. In fact, it’s one of the things I like most in the world. Is it my hair? This is the very latest cut, don’t you know?’
Now that he had been given permission, he did stare. Her hair was bobbed to just below ear level and ended in soft waves. The colour was difficult to define as she wore a simple, narrow-brimmed hat but he judged it to be dark auburn.
‘Or my clothes?’
‘They are rather wonderful.’
‘Guess you’ve never seen any like this before? Madame Chanel paid me a compliment, don’t you know? She said I was just the kind of modern young woman to wear her designs. She hates the way the women dress on vacation and I so agree with her. All those furs and feathers, those silly hobble skirts, how could you dream of playing tennis in them?’
Robert did not remark that he had already seen the long V-necked sweater scandalously made in the same jersey used for men’s underclothes. The fluid skirt had also made its appearance in Giverny. Several of the young ladies who dined at Hotel Baudy were discovering Coco’s boutiques in Deauville and Biarritz. However, he had to admit they had rarely been worn with the flair of this young woman.
‘I couldn’t come to Europe and not do a shopping trip in Paris, now could I? I love her designs, don’t you? So easy fitting, so delightful to move in.’
To demonstrate, she executed a few steps of the Turkey Trot, hopping sideways with her feet apart, rising on the ball of her foot, then dropping onto the heel. It startled Robert. Vernon station had certainly never seen anything like this before.
‘Magnifique!’ a voice called out. A man wearing a wide-brimmed hat had stopped to watch her. Others joined him, which encouraged her to continue. She hummed some bars of the Maple Leaf Rag, raised her elbows in a birdy movement and made turkey-like flourishes with her feet. The appreciative males in her audience were urged away by their tutting companions.
‘Disgusting exhibition,’ Robert heard a woman in an enormous feathered hat mutter as she swept her husband away.
‘Enough of that, young lady,’ he called with mock seriousness. ‘Come along, this way.’
Laughing, she followed him outside, into the heat of the June day. The sky was cobalt blue, the air sweet after the grey, smoky station. The lugubrious porter leaned against a wall, smoking. The precious Vuitton cargo was already stowed and the carter sat above his horse, waiting for instructions.
‘Mademoiselle’s baggage was very, very heavy,’ the porter growled. ‘Too heavy.’ He indicated the possibility of a hernia.
‘Desolé,’ murmured Robert and slipped him a twenty franc note. The man brightened.
Judith was staring at the debonair automobile parked by the kerb; its red paint and brasswork gleamed in the sun.
‘Swell, isn’t it?’ Robert said as casually as he could when it came to his pride and joy. ‘De Dion-Bouton. Latest model.’
‘Oh, Mr Harrison, a beautiful French automobile! I’m driving to Giverny in that? This is just so European.’
Her guileless enthusiasm was infectious but she was like a flame burning brightly, too brightly. The thought provoked a startling sense of familiarity and Robert shook his head to clear the unwanted memories.
‘Oh come now, it’s not that special. Nothing like the vehicles you must go about in in New York.’
‘Thank God, it isn’t,’ she laughed. ‘Thank God. I haven’t come all this way to live the American life. I want to be completely and utterly French!’
Again he was amazed by her intensity; she seemed almost feverish. Her eyes glittered, her pale skin glowed as if candlelit from within. She looked boyish and yet tenderly female, young, yet knowing. He felt drawn to her but not at the level she might suppose. There was more a sense of connection between them: visitors from an urban New World in love with the light and colour of rural France.
‘Well come on, Mr Harrison, what are we waiting for?’
Her smile was flirtatious.
He saw her give a last glance at the carter bearing her precious Louis Vuitton away before she let him help her into the two-seater.
‘Hang on to your hat,’ he yelled into the breeze and they shot out of Vernon and started on the road to Giverny.
Robert had travelled this way so many times in the last twenty-odd years he had almost reached the point of not noticing his surroundings, his concentration set on pushing the V8 engine to its limits, revelling in the speed it could achieve. Almost but not quite: there were occasions when the gold and scarlet of a cornfield scattered with poppies made him yearn to paint it yet again. When snow fell, he would stop the automobile to sit and analyse Monet’s technique for The Magpie, how the painter had traded his usual palette for icy colours of white, grey and violet. It was, he thought, more about perception than description, and might explain why the 1869 Paris Salon rejected it.
At his side, Judith kept up a running commentary, barely pausing for breath. ‘Just look at that rolling landscape, the hedgerows, the lines of poplars. And there’s the Seine, isn’t it? Oh my God, I can’t believe it. It’s all so… so impressionist. How I’ve dreamed of it.’
Robert wondered what had brought her to Giverny. He was aware of her expensive scent, its notes of carnation, iris and vanilla, L’Heure Bleue, he guessed. A cross Atlantic voyage on the Mauritania, a Chanel wardrobe, not to mention a lengthy stay at Hotel Baudy must have cost a mint of money. He had read about the Goldstein family in Vogue. The old man was very rich. This girl was what… twenty-three… twenty-four? He would have thought she’d be married by now, not indulged by Papa to run around Europe. There had been speculation in the hotel dining room of the spoilt little rich girl to come amongst them.
‘Curse that son of a gun who told her about this place. Which joker was that? Metcalf?’ Thomas had demanded.
Robert shook his head. ‘I don’t think he’s in Paris right now.’
‘Well, whoever it was, he must have spun her a hell of a yarn. We’re to be lumbered with her for three months. Madame Baudy told me.’
‘I’ll bet she’ll be a little monster,’ David had laughed.
‘Make the most of it before she arrives.’
The wine jugs were passed round the table and everyone refilled their glasses.
Robert glanced across at her as the little car bowled along. She’s nothing like that, he told himself, but there is something about her that is disturbing. This girl knows what she wants and she will go all out to get it. He felt a return of the unsettling sense of déjà vu and tried to push it from his mind. The automobile made a smooth left turn.
‘Giverny,’ Robert said, the pride of ownership in his voice.
Judith let out a long gasp. ‘My God, the roses, I’ve never seen so many and what are those others, those tall ones with the bright flowers?’
‘Hollyhocks.’
‘Hollyhocks, mmm,’ she seemed to savour the word.
Robert saw through her eyes the arbours and covered walls, the flowerbeds, scarlet, cerise and deep cream. There were so many varieties from blowsy apricot roses to neat pink rosettes, swathes and garlands and cascades of them.
‘Giverny is a village of roses,’ he said. ‘Everyone grows them here, they have all copied Monet. Mind you, it took them some time to come round to the idea. When he first arrived, they couldn’t understand why he was growing flowers and not vegetables. At least you can eat cabbages. Then they realised there was something in it for them: having a successful man in their midst, even if he was a painter, meant there was work to be had.’ They came to a halt outside Hotel Baudy. ‘Now it’s roses, roses all the way.’
The girl said quite innocently: ‘Are you a cynic, Mr Harrison?’
‘Do you even know what the word means?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘No, I’m not, not really, a realist I’d say.’
‘Like Father.’
Robert laughed at this. ‘I don’t suppose I’m anything like your father, Miss Goldstein.’ He leapt to the ground. ‘So here we are then and here is Jacques with your precious baggage.’
She stepped down in a fluid movement of jersey cross cut skirt. If he were not so utterly attached, he toldhimself… He admired the way it enhanced her suppleness, her sportiness and approved.
While her baggage was being carried inside, Judith stood and stared at the building. ‘It looks like a store, not a hotel at all.’
‘It was a store,’ he agreed. ‘A grocery store until we Americans came along. The first guy was way back in 1886. He came here, knocking on the door and asked for lodgings. Madame Baudy sent him away; she said he looked more like a tramp than an artist. Obviously, she changed her mind and they have a fine old business here now.’
She stared at the patterned brickwork as if acquainting herself with Normandy architecture. Again he had this sense of her passionate attention to everything. ‘It takes my breath away.’
Robert felt envious of her, of that first impact which can never be repeated. It is an innocent gaze, untainted by memories or comparisons, artless as a fool or baby. It is seeing when you don’t yet understand, just the miracle of being alive. One of his friends called his name. A group of them was sitting on the sun-dappled terrace, still in their tennis whites, glasses of cider on the table. He signalled that he would join them shortly.
His companion turned to look at them, ‘Golly, are those the other painters?’
‘They are indeed.’
‘I must let you go.’ She held out her hand in a gracious gesture. It felt small and warm. ‘Thank you, Mr Harrison, you are very kind.’
Suddenly she looked tired, like a daisy he thought, surprising himself with this poetic image, ready to fold its petals for the night.
‘You’ve had a long journey,’ he said. ‘Go and rest. Dinner’s at eight-thirty.’