Portrait of Anna
This was no portrait to be hung in Grace's smug home. was a girl's soul, naked in a frame
GRACE’S CALL caught me just as I was leaving the office. She sounded a little breathless.
“I was afraid I would miss you. I want you to come out for dinner. My parcel has just arrived.” “What parcel?”
“Never mind. I’ll show you when you get here. I need your support, Susan. John’s going to think it too unbearably expensive. So I’m arranging a rush dinner party—just my more reliable friends. He can’t be too difficult with an audience. You’ll come?”
I drove out. The Westcotts live near the campus, high on a hill overlooking the bay, within healthful middle-aged walking distance, for John, of the university.
They built the house when they came to the coast four years ago. They had to, Grace always assures us. It was the only way they could get the tiny place they wanted, which yet had two rooms large enough to accommodate «John’s 3,000 books and the 20-by-26 Sein Feiner rug which Grace had bought in Ireland.
The house, I thought as I toiled my old coupé up the hill, had the same slightly conscious air of success and serenity exuded by John and Grace. That quality had made John the most respected man in English on the campus. There was the same quality in the carefully unwrinkled calm of Grace’s
beautiful face, a calm which is not so much calm as a study of calm.
The house is a pleasant place, built with the meticulous attention to detail and comfort which features the homes of so many childless couples. John’s books are housed in melancholy grandeur in a vaulted-ceiling room somewhat reminiscent of a Church of England chapel. The rug is in Grace’s white drawing-room.
“Of course, you’re insane,” Marjorie Duff was saying as Grace piloted me to a chair by the white, carved fireplace. “It’s a heavenly room; but let one of our fogs get at it and it’ll be grey, not white.”
“That’s the trouble with you coast people,” said Grace. She went across to the cocktail table, her movements, as always, deliberately slow, as though she moved just behind the beat of some unsounded music. “You accept your wretched weather. Well, after four years of it, I won’t any more. This white room is my challenge to your fogs and your rain.”
It was a beautiful room. Walls panelled in the elegance of bleached oak. Heavy drapes of coarse white homespun at the wide mountain-gazing windows. Furniture upholstered in the exact off-white of the walls and the drapes. And at our feet the vivid, glowing jewel colors of the great rug.
Grace brought me a glass, and turned to switch up some lights at the far end of the room.
“And now my extravagance. But the room needed it. You must help me convince John of that. It’s an Anna Christoferson: ‘Self-Portrait.’ ”
And under the lights the dark square on the wall came to life. Browns and reds, turbid and turmoilous and hot, with earth and peace underneath. The face of a woman, and then, not quite the face of a woman. The eyes of a woman. A piece of soul.
We looked at it for a moment.
“I suppose you would call it art,” said Marjorie Duff then. “You do get fond of her stuff, they say. My aunt has one. A forest. She’s had it for eight years. At first it just looked to me like swirls of brown and grey and black. But the other day, you know, I suddenly thought it did look like a forest.”
We heard the front door opening just then, and John’s step in the hall. Grace went to meet him with a little graceful rush, and her voice, as she drew him into the room, had just the right note of childish guilt.
“Come view my extravagance, darling, and agree that truly, truly, the room needed it.”
«John let her pull him across the floor, smiling his tolerant male smile, and nodding at us. He looked like a well-tailoredmind in his skilfully cut tweeds.
Grace bubbled on. “Dana Crossfield got it for me. The sheerest luck. He says she’ll never do another. Too near the end, poor thing.” And then, at his uncomprehending look, “It’s a picture, darling. An Anna Christoferson.”
John Westcott’s face was suddenly not successful then, not cynical and smooth. It was as it had been those long years ago, when he and I had stood together at the back gate. All lined with sorrow and—fear.
But Grace did not see. Her eyes were on the portrait. Her hand did not feel the sudden, agonized tightening of John’s fingers.
“And besides, dear,” she pointed out, “I feel we have such a personal interest in her work. After all, she used to live in the town where I was brought up —and Susan, too. Remember, Susan?”
Sitting there with my drink forgotten in my hand, with these people in the room gone somewhere far off, I did remember.
Back and back and back. To the year when I was eight, the year when we first moved to Carstair, Man.
It is hard to remember, sometimes, when you were eight. The picture blurs, there are things you cannot outline. But where it touched Anna Christoferson it was rich and rounded and clear.
THE FIRST time I saw Anna was the day when she caught us setting my little brother, Bobbie, to fight the Mutson girl.
They were both about 18 months old. The little Mutson girl used to run away and come toddling down the block toward our place.
We didn’t like her. Nothing to do with her, I think, but because we had learned, through the town’s whispers, that her mother was a bad woman. We didn’t know exactly why she was bad; but her eyes were coal-black and sullen, and her hair hung untidily down the back of the dressing gown she wore all through the day. And she never allowed us to go near her little cottage with the sour gooseberries in front of it.
So when Lois ran away we would wait for her at our fence. My brother Ron, who was two years older than I was, would be on one side of the fence, and his chum, Harold, would be on the other. And when Lois came abreast of us we would set Bobbiè in front of her and tell them to fight.
They would start obediently. Beating each other with their baby fists and wailing. And we would shriek with laughter and excitement until Lois’ mother was almost upon us. And then Ron would hand Bobbie back over the fence to Harold, and the rest of us would run to hide in the bushes down by the Methodist church.
Lois’ mother would always chase us, swearing and obscene; that was half the sport. But she never caught us; the dressing gown tripped her up.
Only one day it was not Mrs. Mutson who chased us. It was Anna. And she caught Ron before he was halfway to the bushes.
She was little—really not a great deal larger than he; but she threw him down hard in the dust as though he were a stupid toy. And she stood over him fiercely, shaking her fists and scolding.
We others hesitated a bit, in the safety of the bushes, and then went back to Ron’s rescue, seeing that Anna was much smaller and less to be dreaded than Mrs. Mutson.
She was over her anger when we arrived, but her eyes were large and dark and sad.
“You’re wrong to be cruel to Lois,” she told us. “She’s a poor little thing.”
“Her mother’s a witch,” announced Ron, gathering himself up gingerly from the dust.
“And what if she is! You should feel all the sorrier for Lois. Why, half the time she doesn’t even get enough to eat.” And as if to prove it, Lois, who had subsided under Anna’s protecting arm, began to whimper again.
Anna looked at her with concern. “Any of you kids know where we can get her something to eat?” she asked.
We exchanged glances.
“My mother putsour lunchout in our playhouse,” I told her finally.
We helped her to feed Lois our jelly roll and milk. Lois was very hungry. We had forgotten by this time our enmity for her. But we were very interested in Anna. She was much bigger than we were, almost grown-up size, and yet,'in some strange way, not grown-up either. She started to tell us a story.
It was a wonderful story. It was about us—about Ron and Harold and Harold’s sister, Katey, and my sister, Judy, and her friend, Dave, and Bobbie and me.
We had a Big Brown Lion who was three times as big as the playhouse, and a Little White Lion who was so small he could sleep in an eggcup. The Big Brown Lion was our bodyguard, and the Little White Lion was our spy, and they could both speak very good English. With their assistance we preyed upon the neighborhood.
The neighborhood was very bad, of course, and we were just setting things to rights; but we were ferocious and shed oceans of blood, nevertheless.
We rescued a Little Gypsy Boy who Lay Dying Alone at the Close of the Day, and sang the hymn that went with it.
We whisked in and out of the lions’ den with Daniel—Anna was Biblically sound and so were we —my father was the Methodist minister. We went down into Egypt with Joseph and his brethren.
And always in the dust of our garden, Anna would trace with her finger the pictures.
The pictures of the Big Brown Lion and the Little White Lion. And all the people. And yet, not actually pictures of those things, either. Pictures of the ideas we had about them. Exactly and precisely the thoughts in our minds. We knew what they were, without question; but an adult, coming down the garden walk, might have wondered.
I can remember Anna now as she sat there among us at the foot of our potato patch. She was a strange-looking girl. There was a brownness about her, a warmth, as though she grew, ripe and fruitful like the cornstalks, out of our earth. She had enormous dark eyes in a small brown face, and a body that was all soft and round, and bare brown feet with toes that wiggled as though they lived a life of their own.
She wore a sacklike dress that she’d made herself. It was cut long and straight from coarse brown cotton, like a sleeveless nightgown, and there were yards and yards of scarlet ribbon bound about her waist. Her thick black hair fell straight as a string to her thighs.
She must have been nearly 16 then.
We thought her quite a fine and satisfactory playmate, and told our mother about her that night. And mother told us very firmly that we were not to play with her again.
She had been warned about her, she said, by Mrs. Somerset Blackley, the president of the Ladies’ Aid. She was a strange girl, not quite right in her mind, perhaps, who said strange, quite wicked things, and wouldn’t go to school—wouldn’t do anything except wander barefoot about the streets, and tend her Grandmother Christoferson’s chickens and bury herself for hours in her dead fathers’ really quite dreadful library.
The next morning I met Anna in the lane which divided our two houses, and told her that my mother said I must not play with her any more.
She looked at me thoughtfully.
“That is too bad. We must not worry your mother. We will have to be careful that she does not see us. When you can slip away you must come and stand here, in the lane, under the oak tree, and call to me through the gate. ‘Anna’ you must say, ‘Anna, I’m waiting for you, Anna.’ And then I will come.”
And so, though we were usually quite obedient we broke this one ruling without a second thought.
Anna was a very enriching playmate. She did not laugh a great deal, nor talk, except when she told us stories. There was, indeed, something rather sombre and remote about her. But her approach to us was the approach of one adult to other adults, untainted Continued on page 37
Portrait of Anna
Continued from page 11
with any sort of condescension.
She was a whole citizen in our world of half reality, half imagination, giving to our fantasies a clarity which few children enjoy. We walked in a world of mystery and enchantment — and delightful security, for was not our every step protected by a vast, though invisible, Brown Lion?
She taught us many things. How to play Robin Hood and his Merry Men in the ravine which sloped down from her back fence. And “Lay Low,” on the steps of the Methodist church.
You probably know the game by another name. To play it we divided ourselves into two teams, each with a captain. One camped on the church steps, and the other went off somewhere and hid. After a time the captain of the hiding team would come back and draw a map which was supposed to show, but not too clearly, the hiding place; and the other team would set off in pursuit, the opposing captain shouting warnings in code to his men. The winning side was the one which roared first across the church steps, shouting, “Lay Low.” We played on the church steps because that was the only place in our neighborhood of boardwalks where _ there WEIS a piece of cement suitable for the drawing of maps. Maps in the dust were all right, but not to be compared with maps on a smooth cement, drawn with carefully hoarded bits of colored chEilk.
IT WAS while we played “Lay Low” one day that Anna met John Westcott.
Anna was captain of the hiding team, and was drawing her map when Mr. Westcott strolled by. We knew who he was. He had passed us often before, on his way to visit Grace Orchard in her parents’ house at the end of town. He was a university student, come to study the summer schools in our district and write a thesis about them. At least that was his story. The town thought he had come to pay court to Grace Orchard, who had met him at college the year before.
He stopped beside us now, and watched Anna draw her map. Anna was not too good a map drawer. However she might disguise the hiding place, it seemed Edways, after a moment or two, to leap out at us.
And Harold, who led the opposition, shrieked now: “It’s Stevenson’s crab apple grove.”
“How could you possibly know it was the crab apple grove?” demanded Mr. Westcott, who had been studying the drawing silently, bending his lank form above us.
“Why, you can see,” cried Harold disdainfully, and led us oif toward the grove like a pack of wolves.
Mr. Westcott was still studying the map, each sour# gnarled line of it, when wescreamed home several minutes later, Harold having guessed accurately as usual.
He turned his ugly benign face toward us—he was 28 at the time, but very old, so far as we were concerned. “You were quite right,” he told Harold. “Perfect crab apple grove.” He nodded profoundly. “But if I were you kids I’d leave these parts for a couple of hours. Mrs. Somerset Blackley watched you off on your last hunt, and she’s been poking around among your drawings looking like thunder. At the moment I think she’s discussing them down at the Methodist parsonage.”
We were instantly wary. This was a danger of which we had not been exactly unconscious. We knew that church steps were not intended for uproarious games, and Mrs. Blackley was one of our more rigid church members.
As one man we decided to adjourn to the pool at the far end of the ravine.
Mr. Westcott, uninvited, accompanied us, half-running in his effort to keep pace with Anna’s fleet bare feet. We looked at him curiously, but Anna paid him no special attention at all.
We walked across our fallen maple to the seclusion of the tall trees beyond, where the sunlight reached us only in leafy patterns.
Anna seated herself comfortably on the green moss and tucked her brown feet under her skirt.
We knew that it was wise to maintain quiet, since the defenders of our Methodist virtue might come seeking
us; so we gathered close about her— Mr. Westcott one of the circle—and listened to her latest installment of our story.
And as she talked she drew pictures with her fingernail on the creamy fungi that grew heavily about the bole of the tree, and the strokes went brown at her touch. It was a perfect, if perishable, canvas.
John We8tcott’s eyes never left the strange brown girl, with the magic, moving finger. They have changed, those eyes, in the years I’ve known them. There was no cynicism in them that day. Only a queer sort of surprise, almost—of discovery.
It was when Anna’s curving fingernail sketched the witchery of the fairy princess, that he leaned forward, suddenly, and said urgently, looking deep into her eyes, “This is wonderful. This is very important. You must get these things on canvas, on something that will last. Y ou will be very famous sometime, Anna.”
Anna stopped dead, and for maybe half a minute she sat there, leaning slightly forward, her eyes on his eyes. And then she gave a funny little gasp and leaped to her feet, and ran wildly off down the ravine, as though something she feared very much pursued at her very heels.
She wouldn’t play with us after that for two or three days; and then she seemed to put something out of her mind, and to come back, with determination, to being a child again. But she would never look at John Westcott while he looked at her. Only when his eyes were somewhere else would she study him, for long minutes at a time, with a sort of grief on her face. .
After that he seemed to be one of our party much of the time. He did not behave like an adult, however, and Anna did not seem to object, so we permitted his presence. He would sit on a moss-covered fallen tree, smoking a smelly black pipe, and watching us play Robin Hood. Or he would join the circle about Anna.
He taught us how to make brilliant trout flies, to use fishing in our small shining pool. It was a waste of time, since nothing lurked in the pond save fat sluggish suckers which wouldn’t have risen to any bait; but we fished hopefully for hours, nevertheless.
He went with us, too, to the “quite dreadful” library of Anna’s which mother had mentioned.
It was not dreadful at all—merely a large, rather musty room on the second floor of her grandmother’s house. It was full of books, stacked haphazardly in homemade shelves, with homemade benches running along in front of them.
In that room the difference between John’s age and ours seemed to dwindle. He seemed no older than my brother Ron, as he lay on the worn green carpet beside us, a leather cushion at his head.
He shared our triumph in catching up with the expurgated portions of the books which mother was reading us— the murder of Nancy in “Oliver Twist,” and of Uncle Tom in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” And he listened with our pleasure to the soft sound of Anna’s voice as she read aloud.
Anna did not read to us as mother did, a chapter at a time. When possible she read a book at a time. There was one rainy day which we devoted entirely to “Coral Island,” interrupting only once in a while to make forays on Mrs. Christoferson’s cookie jar and apple bin.
We liked that room, and that summer, and Anna. And so did John. It was the one summer in all our lives when time did not exist.
And then one day John came down to the pool while Anna and the rest of us girls were swimming.
Those swmünmg sessions were something we had never bothered to mention to mother. They were Anna’s idea. The boys had always gone swimming, carefully excluding the girls; and she had decided suddenly that there was no reason why we should be denied the sport.
So she would send the boys firmly away, and we would retire to the shelter of the tall trees and undress.
We always retained our bloomers. They were heavy flannelette, navyblue, and caught with elastic at waist and knee. After we had swam several times across the pool, and practiced diving from the fallen maple tree, we would climb up on the rocks on the sunny side of the water, and lie about until we were dry.
We were posed so one day when John Westcott, not knowing the restrictions, came down the path toward us.
In an instant flurry all of us but Anna were in the protecting pool. She stayed where she was, turning her dark gaze upon him. Actually, she was more than adequately clothed, for her black hair fell as densely about her as a cloak.
“The boys are not allowed down here while we swim,” she told him mildly. And he turned away.
But he hesitated, gazing back at her for a moment, before he went up the ravine. And that was unfortunate. For Mrs. Somerset Blackley, who had reported in the matter of the Methodist Church steps, had come down to the pool for an armful of fern, and saw them so; and went back to carry the tale to the town.
THAT story, reaching Grace Orchard, must have been the reason for the big party her parents gave the next week end. Looking back, though, I suspect it was only the final reason. For she must have wonderèd, before that, why the . games of a group of children should so cut into the time John spent with her. Knowing her, I suspect also that the story, gossiped vigorously through that small town, must have infuriated her almost to the point of deciding to break things off with John.
But not quite. For even then Grace recognized a good thing when she saw it.
The party, or social, as we called it, was to follow the shingling bee at the Methodist parsonage. The Ladies’ Aid had bought the shingles, and the men in the congregation were to come on Saturday to put on the new roof. They would be accompanied by their wives, who would set up long tables on the front lawn, and by their children, who would join us in the ravine.
And then in the evening we were to go to the Orchard’s big house on the outskirts of town.
We told Anna about it, sitting down in our favorite spot among the trees. She was interested, but a little quiet. After a while she said,
“Do you suppose it would be all right if I went?”
“Anybody can go,” agreed Harold. “You could go.”
“I would need some new clothes.” She looked with disfavor at her sacklike cotton dress.
We were surprised. We had become accustomed to Anna as she was. It did not seem right to think of her in a conventional frock.
And the frock she wore the evening of the party was not exactly conventional.
“She would have, it,” I heard Mrs. Henderson, whose husband owned the general store, tell Mrs. Somerset Blackley. “We keep them for the Doukhoboi-s.”
It was different from the dresses
worn by the other women. Their skirts were short, above their kneecaps, and straight, so that their bodies had no curves at all.
Anna’s skirt was gathered full to her true waist, like a peasant woman’s, and swept halfway to her ankle, and she was all curves. And her little brown feet that had always been bare before were locked up in a pair of heavy black sandals.
The Ladies’ Aid made ice cream in big freezers in the summer kitchen, and we children played at musical chairs on the lawn, and the young couples put on charades in the parlor.
Anna was with no group. Her black hair, bound up in a heavy and unfamiliar roll on the back of her neck, made her look older, and put a distance between her and us. And the couples ignored her.
As the Ladies’ Aid passed the huge dishes of ice cream about at the supper hour Mr. Orchard banged with His spoon on the table for silence.
He was a great fat man—Grace has fought that tendency to flesh all her life—and a little uncouth. » -
“You may think,” he said to us, and the triumph beamed out all over him, “that we’re just gathered here to celebrate the roofing of the parsonage. Well, we are, and it was a good job, and we’re proud of it.
“But there’s another reason we wanted you here to make merry with us. My girl Grace has gone and said yes to a fine young man that’s been among us this summer, Mr. John Westcott.”
And he turned toward Grace and John who were beside him at the table.
Everybody laughed and clapped then, and shouted good wishes to the pair at the table.
Grace was like a slick yellow cat that’s taken the top cream; but John’s
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funny wooden face was a little grim, as though a thought somewhere in his head was holding the smile back from his lips.
I slipped out to find Anna and tell her. I thought she would think it funny, as I did.
But I couldn’t find her.
I didn’t find her till Grace had taken the women upstairs to show them her hope chest and the summer kitchen was empty. And as I passed it I saw that Anna stood by the door. But I didn’t go in, because John was standing beside her talking and there was something
strange and sick in his voice. His words were quite clear though.
“I met her at university, Anna. We’ve been engaged, unofficially, for months. That’s why I came here . . . and you were only a little girl.”
Anna looked at him for a long minute, and didn’t seem to make any proper answer that I could hear. Then she dropped her eyes to her feet, her little brown feet that had never known any restriction, and were all bound up now in the heavy black sandals.
“And I put on shoes,” she said.
Her voice was wondering, like a child’s.
She was gone then, before John,could say anything else, and I could hear her running off through the darkness. I couldn’t find her anywhere, although I looked.
It was late before I went down to the lane to call her next day. I stood at the oak and called softly, as always, “Anna, I’m waiting for you, Anna.” But she didn’t come.
I looked up then, and John Westcott was standing beside me..
“Call louder, Susan,” he said.1 “I have to see her too.”
He looked different, somehow, in the morning sun. Desperate still, but with a rock firmness underneath, as though he had thought hard all night, and come through to the one necessary thing in the morning.
But however loudly I called, she would not come. And then finally her grandmother put her head out the back door and shouted-at me.
“There’s no use your keeping on calling her. Anna’s gone. She went last night.”
“Where has she gone?” asked John.
“I don’t know.” The old woman shook her head. She was a stupid old woman. “She took the train. She went a long way. She isn’t coming back.”
They seemed to make the town smaller, those words, and of no account. I was eight, and someone had taken my sun out of the sky and thrust it into a well.
“She’s gone,” I said to John. And I looked at his face and saw that it had gone wooden all over, and that his eyes were like grey granite, with no light in them anywhere.
AS THEY were again now, these jf\. many years later, in Grace’s white echoless room, as he looked at the picture by Anna Christoferson that hung on the wall.
“You’ll grow to like it, darling,” said Grace’s slow, careful voice. “It’s just masses of color at first, but they resolve themselves into the most amazing thing.” She signalled me with her eye. “You think. I’m wise, don’t you, Susan?”
I looked at the glass in my hand. “Oh, certainly.” I did not let any expression come into my voice. “It will probably be a collector’s piece some time, John.”
“I don’t doubt it.” He turned back to us, and his face was behind its wall again. He went over to the table and poured himself a drink
“And after all, dear”—Grace’s voice was carefully practical — “she’s not likely to do any more. This morning’s paper says they’ve moved her to St. Peter’s hospital. Dana Crossfield says it’s a matter of time. She’s very low.”
“No, she won’t do any more.” John spoke harshly, stridently. “She can’t haVe done more than a dozen first-class pieces.” His eyes were on me now, agonizing. “A great many of her mediums were scarcely permanent.”
“She has started a new school,” said Grace decisively. “She puts ideas on canvas. Not things.”
“Thats exactly it!” The savagery
that made John frightening but admirable in English class leaped into his face. “My dear Grace, can’t you see? This isn’t the portrait of a woman. It’s the portrait of a soul. A free soul. How long do you think your middle-aged husband can read his paper in comfort beneath that gaze? Can I swallow my breakfast bran and meet those eyes?”
He strode over to the picture and lifted it down from the wall.
“You can’t have it, Grace. Get any painting you want. A nice chocolate box top to go with this rug of yours.
And we shall give this, with your compliments, to the new wing of the library at the university. She’ll be at home with the young things there.”
The look in his eyes shouted down the waspishness that broke through Grace’s careful voice.
“I shall take it now,” he told her, spacing each word, as though he feared she might not understand or believe him, “and put it in Susan’s car. She can deliver it for us. Gome along, Susan.”
I went after him without words.