The Crimson Portrait

A Novel


By Jody Shields

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Set in England during World War I, this haunting love story by the author of the bestselling The Fig Eater makes unforgettably real the ravages of love and war.



The Fig Eater

For Jane Wildgoose

The eye is traitor of the heart.

—Thomas Wyatt (1503-1543)

Chapter One

A MAN IN UNIFORM sat across from her. It was a hot afternoon, and the sunlight in the drawing room turned the metal buckle at his waist into a sharp bright square and made the gold buttons on his jacket perfect as coins. A stiff collar surrounded his soft neck. His face was indistinct, unaccustomed to giving orders. She guessed he had been called into the military from a minor profession in the city.

"It will be a great adjustment to have the men occupy your house, ma'am."

"Yes, it will be strange." She attempted a smile.

"Had you thought of relocating for the duration of the war? Staying with family?"

"I have no other family. My late husband arranged for the hospital to be set up here before he enlisted. I encouraged his plan. I've never considered leaving. It's my duty to stay."

"You'll find the patients are a quiet group."

"I'm certain they will be." Her dress was thin, loose over her body, only its dark color gave it weight. She leaned forward. "Tell me, did you give the order to remove the mirrors from the house?"

"No. The head surgeon, Dr. McCleary, gave the orders. Best to have precious things out of harm's way when the patients arrive."

"Yes. There has been enough destruction."

The major's hands opened, a gesture of apology. "We'll leave what we can in place. The lighting fixtures. Some of the draperies. By the way, your chandelier is quite remarkable."

They simultaneously looked up at the ceiling. The chandelier was immense and unlit, its prisms dulled by fine dust, as if a flood of dirty water had risen through the room. When her husband was alive, two servants'-hall boys had tended the chandeliers, slowly lowering the tinkling, transparent tiers on ropes once a month to be cleaned with feather brushes.

The major's lips moved, but the young woman couldn't hear him, as if he spoke from a great distance. He had come to cast a spell over the house. A spell of urgent purpose, the soldiers' mission to spread disruption. She imagined men's shadows moving through the rooms, swift, black, gigantic, altering each space with the brutality of an eclipse. Others would follow and together they would rob the library of its stillness, strip the dining room of pleasure, disturb the cold core of the well and the lakes. It was 1915, the first spring since the war started, and her home was being transformed into a military hospital.

She sensed the major had asked a question and was waiting for an answer. Yes. She nodded. Yes. Yes.

He gently coughed to break the silence.

"The weather. Unusual for this time of year."

"It's a pity, but the rooms may become quite warm when they are fully occupied by soldiers. They weren't designed for such a purpose." She stood up, forcing him to follow. "I will have someone show you out."

"I'll find my way. Thank you, ma'am."

From the library window she watched the stout figure in a brown uniform walk straight down the drive without looking at the landscape or the house. She realized that he had no need to observe his surroundings, since everything was already in his possession. The estate had been conquered. Was he carrying a weapon? Had she seen the curved handle of a pistol? A sword?

She opened the door to the powder room. There was a small mirror on the wall, and as she adjusted its angle, her reflected hand seemed disconnected from her body. She smudged her initial on the mirror's dusty surface, C for Catherine. No last name. She was a widow. She stepped aside and her image slipped out of the mirror cleanly, as if she'd passed through water. An odorless, bodiless thing.

The mirrors were the lakes in the landscape of this house, she thought. Somehow they were linked to one another, as all glass and water were related. The immense mirror in the ballroom, a triptych positioned at the heart of the house, was a great pool, a place of transfer, and the other mirrors magically flowed into it, tributaries of silver.

When the last mirror was taken down, it would mark a turning point in the fortunes of the house, a darkening of the places formerly stung by light.

OFFICIAL PAPERS FROM the military listed the rooms that would be requisitioned to accommodate the wounded soldiers and the hospital staff. All the reflective objects in the public spaces were to be put in storage.

The military would take away the mirrors: perhaps they would also demand clocks, watches, other witnesses and timekeepers. Sundials. Calendars. Everyone was concerned with time. How slowly it passed. How long it would be until the war was over. The names of the dead wound through the Times like an immeasurable gray ribbon, filling page after page in small type. How could faith work against this?

Followed by the elderly head gardener and two silent boys, Catherine quickly walked through the Long Gallery into the Pink Drawing Room, stopping before a mirror in a lacquered chinoiserie frame. Held in the unforgiving slant of its rectangular surface, they appeared ill at ease, their faces dilated, her somber crepe dress and the servants' rough work clothing clumsily shrouding their thickened bodies.

"Take this mirror down first." Catherine struggled to compress her bitter feeling of loss, afraid that the mirror would exaggerate her expression.

"As you wish, ma'am."

The mirrors in the next room had even greater age, set in cracked gilt frames, darkened with a lichen-like black growth on their back sides, evidence of time's poisonous breath. At the corners of the frames hung tiny golden bells that remained silent, poised to delicately protest their descent from the wall.

"Remove everything in the room that has a shine or reflection. The clock, the silver bowl, and the vases on the mantel." A moment later she said, "No. Leave the bowl there. Let it tarnish. But take this away too." She pointed to the mirror set in the door of a cabinet and left them to work.

The three servants cleared the mantelpiece, emptied the bureau, secretaire, and kneehole desk. A letter opener, a picture frame, and a compass plated with bright silver were discovered inside a desk compartment lined with scratched green leather. The older boy wrapped them in a flannel cloth and laid them in a box. He picked up a paperweight, a smooth dome of colored glass irresistible as candy. The gardener wasn't accustomed to working in the house, and his voice was too loud as he told the boy to put the thing down and fetch a ladder.

The boy raced across the bare wood floor, his footsteps shaking the chandelier, jarring its prisms into quivering motion, creating sharp-angled patterns that swept across the walls and ceiling around them, transforming the room into a giant kaleidoscope.

Returning with the ladder, he set it in a timorous balance against the wall. The smaller mirrors were slowly lifted free from the walls, and the boys carried them to the attic one at a time, where they were laid in rows on the floor.

The gardener waited, casting a nervous eye over the huge central mirror hanging in the Pink Drawing Room. When the boys returned, he made them study the mirror on the wall for a full three minutes to familiarize themselves with its weight and fragility.

The mirror was more than six feet long and it wobbled and flashed in their hands, as if with its removal from the wall a spell had been broken and it might suddenly become less reliably physical and flow out over the frame. The boys whispered to each other, soft speech a charm against dropping it.

Bundled in blankets, the mirror was carried horizontally, the boys as careful as pallbearers maneuvering it through the enormous house, up the front staircase, then to a narrower flight of stairs. Under their sweating hands the blanket around the mirror released a pronounced odor of raw wool.

They reached the attic, and without setting down the unwieldy burden, one of them kicked the attic door. It swung violently open, and they stopped, dazzled by the reflection from the mirrors covering the floor. As they entered the room, a hot line of sunlight leaked through a window, magnifying the mirrors into brilliance so the floor appeared to be flooded with silver water, and they marveled like explorers encountering a strange, unexpected sea.

EARLY IN THE EIGHTEENTH century, the owner of the estate had paced the grounds and ordered a number of small ornamental pavilions, follies, and grottos built in the most picturesque locations. Seemingly made for temporary pleasure, some of the structures were as fragile as theatrical scenery, fabricated from porous rock, plaster, limestone, and ancient bricks scavenged from ruins on the property. The walls and ceilings glittered with stalactites, crystal spars, molten glass, or were roughly patterned with fossils, shells, pebbles. The sawed leg bones of oxen had been painstakingly set into one still-intact floor.

The structures had long been undefended against time, weather, the purposeful stones of vandals, and since the gardening staff had volunteered for military service, they had been untended for two seasons. Stone walls and glass had cracked; streams had clouded with silt. The Chinese temple was near collapse; the extravagant gilt on the carved, finned fish at the top of its pointed roof had faded to coarse scales. Inside, the painted figures on the walls were clothed in shabby fragments of color that had once been lavish Oriental dress. A temple dedicated to an unknown nymph had lost its faux limestone base, and a mock Gothic tower had a broken parapet.

One of the smaller follies had been captured by nets of vines, and the walls of another were half submerged by the lake. Entire buildings and statuaries had been stitched over by threads of grass and weeds, lost to memory. Recently, Catherine had been startled by a sudden gurgle of water, a captive noise below her feet as she stood on a hidden drain near the vinery.

The under-butler had pointed out the icehouse to Catherine, a sandstone vault surmounting a conical brick well nearly twenty-three feet deep. His father had been born on the estate and passed on the living knowledge of a time when this well was filled with ice layered with salt and straw to keep it frozen through the summer months. Now it was empty and echoing, and the spidery steps that clung to its sides were so steeply angled that they induced vertigo in the few who had risked a descent.

Months after her husband's death, Catherine had met a friend at the Carlton Hotel and announced she intended to raze all the ornamental buildings on the estate. "The buildings have no purpose. There is no question that since the war, I have simply lost tolerance for damaged things. I only want to keep what's worth keeping."

"Oh, leave them be. It's not as if you need the land," her friend had answered, bored with the discussion.

But Catherine had been insistent. "I want to pull down the buildings and use the materials for something else." She had longed to sweep everything away. She waited for the flat landscape of winter, the oblivion of snow, to erase her choices. Making choices wearied her.

It became Catherine's habit to listen, convinced she heard the sound of destruction, the wrenching of brick and stone as the ornamental buildings were forced from shape, exposing bare earth underneath to light for the first time in one hundred and forty-nine years.

AT A SHATTERING NOISE, crisp as china breaking, Catherine looked up from the letter she was writing. Curious, she put down her fountain pen and left the house. Walking past the lake, she composed a picture of the mirrors as they had been taken down in the house behind her, their brilliant, sharp-angled reflections sweeping across the rooms, passing over silk draperies and painted surfaces without a mark, altering nothing with the cold blankness of their light.

The entrance to the grotto was hidden by marsh grass, its door a rounded opening between rough stones. Inside, her eyes adjusted to the taper of light created by a hole in the roof, and gradually the dimness lifted, revealing an intricate pattern on the walls, thousands and thousands of shells, a surface softly lustrous as a fruit stripped of its skin and fragile as porcelain. Catherine stepped forward, her boot blindly crushing the fallen shells into powder.

I INTEND TO JOIN my regiment in two weeks' time," Catherine's husband had told her in the Pink Drawing Room. Catherine remembered that as Charles had spoken, a maid approached and the silver tray in the girl's hands reflected a zigzag of glare into her eyes. Now she understood it had been a warning that a bullet or the flash of an explosion in a field would take his life, destroy their future.

Charles had died and she remained in the huge house, surrounded by a constellation of objects collected by generations of his family. Catherine had also been born into a house filled with valuables and was conscious of their inviolability, like a walking stick that was always the correct length for the reach of the arm. When she married Charles, one set of objects had replaced another. Wood. Stone. Iron. Clay. Gold.

Charles's possessions had been left untouched in his dressing room adjoining the master bedroom, and only two open trunks betrayed his absence. Nearly a year ago, the trunks had been packed according to his list sent from the front: inflatable air cushion, luminous compass, chocolate bars, twill breeches from Sandon, tobacco, tinned paté, scarves, gloves, a heavy wool blanket, and a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse. Handkerchiefs doused with Catherine's perfume, Jicky, were tucked into the corners of the trunks.

Catherine had imagined him opening a trunk in his tent and, genie-like, the familiar scent of lemon, orris, and bergamot rising, eliminating the elastic distance between them. The news that Charles had been killed on the battlefield arrived before the trunks were shipped.

During her earliest stage of mourning, Catherine was pinched with the desire for destruction and had furiously circled the rooms, searching for evidence of tarnish, rotted wood, cracked plaster. The rich colors of the upholstery, draperies, and carpets had faded as if they had ripened backward. Charles's death had revealed the truth of the house's fragility.

This house contained many beautiful objects, but she wanted only what Charles had touched. A shagreen box that held his stationery. His fountain pen, his paperweight, the silver bibelots on his desk. A piece of sea glass discovered in a trunk. An umbrella with a mahogany handle his fingers had gripped. The sound of a cup against a saucer when he had set it down. The span his eyes had traveled to a clock. The suspense of waiting as his hand reached to caress her.

In the wardrobe, Charles's jackets retained the shape of his body, fit twelve times by his exacting cutter at Poole & Co. on Savile Row, so that the lapels unfurled over his clavicle, the shoulder pads defined a handsome curve, the pockets slanted at the angles his hands would enter.

Catherine found a camphor-wood box filled with his gloves and pulled one over her own hand, certain that the soft leather interior held an impression of his fingers, the lines on his palm, the thick horizontal welt of his wedding ring. She knew his skin intimately. Once, after a quarrel, Charles had gently placed his hand on her bare neck, his touch as familiar as stone. When they were first married, she had opened her eyes to find him studying her face. She had slipped from the bed, pressed her hand against the freezing windowpane—snow swirled wildly outside—and then laid her cold palm against his cheek. Her gesture had amused him, but she had made her mark. He was hers.

She now tried to restore this encounter, lengthen it, fasten it to words, to their conversation. What had they said to each other? What was his expression as their eyes met? Her memory wouldn't expand. It evaporated, elusive as a taste or scent, trackless as a wave. What she wanted was to be surprised by him again.

She craved the image of her husband. Each day she selected a room in the house and forced her memory to place Charles there, reclaiming him, little by little, from the past. But these glimpses could be created only indirectly. If she studied a chair in the library he appeared at the fireplace. Or if her eyes followed a pattern in the carpet, she could visualize him at the window. He couldn't escape her, but she was unable to command him to move, cross the room, walk through the door. He was always a static figure. Why should this be so? She had believed memory was constant in its appearance, as a fire was always hot.

Surely she could be granted one wish, just his shadow, a flat and valueless thing. The outline of a man that blocked the sun, without breath, color, dimension. Like death filling a body. She searched her memory for Charles's face but was granted only details—his profile, his lips, the lines at the side of his mouth, the familiar lengthy scar on his hand—as if viewing a portrait from different angles. Perhaps these fragmentary images were related to his wounds.

She had squandered the time she had been granted to study him. Now she would exchange the hours she'd spent before a mirror, her own chronicle of vanity, for a single glance at him. Her thoughts fused into a circle of regret. If only I had . . . I wish I had . . . If you were yet . . . Even though you are . . . If only she had been more observant.

Two months after Charles's death was reported, she had received a photograph of him standing with several other soldiers before a wall of sandbags. The image had been badly developed, or the light on the battlefield had harshly affected the men, because their eyes had faded into halos and their faces were drained and ghostly, too weak to hold the film's sensitivity. Or perhaps the photographer had captured them as they were in the process of dissolving, dying. Metamorphosis. It was magical that Charles hadn't returned from war. Death was an envelope, a letter, words. Not a body.

Catherine lost the grace of sleep. A widow's burden, to be awake. In darkness, she had no edges, she contained a stain, a vapor that would dissolve her from inside. Charles had been the weight that kept her from floating away.

CATHERINE'S FATHER HAD forbidden his daughter the use of his library, although its books were never read and haphazardly organized, having been inherited from his own father. When she was barely sixteen and had outgrown lessons with her governess, her father had insisted the elderly woman remain in residence at their home, his strategy to discourage Catherine from attending college, Newnham or Somerville, as some families in society had permitted their daughters. The governess stayed on, a hostile, fretting reminder of her pupil's abbreviated education. Catherine was launched into society, too young to be regretful.

During the season she was presented at court, Catherine had worn dresses by Lucille and Redfern, a tiara and shoe buckles set with diamonds. She enjoyed the sleight of courtship with several suitors, the speculation, the whispered confidences, the careful cursive of her misspelled entries scrawled in a journal bound in mauve silk, later burned.

As a farewell to summer, the Chetwodes had held a ball at Market Drayton on the last day of August. Mrs. Chetwode—Maudie—was Catherine's dearest friend. The dancing ended at sunrise, when Catherine and Maudie mischievously tossed garlands of wilted flowers at guests from a balcony and fled the house, laughing. Outside, they discovered the deserted tennis court. Without exchanging a word, they picked up two rackets and daringly played a fast game, the diaphanous flounces of their ball gowns rippling around their ankles.

Years later, Charles confessed he'd secretly watched the young women play and immediately determined to marry Catherine. He had suddenly appeared on the tennis court, a mysterious man in an evening coat, holding an errant chalk white ball as if tempting her with a forbidden fruit.

Charles had wooed Catherine, sending half a dozen telegrams every day and armloads of Madonna lilies. They were a popular married couple, seldom separated, invited everywhere. There were hunt balls, teas, card games, dinners followed by charades, weekend parties at Lansdowne, Bridgewater, and Londonderry House. Catherine relied entirely on Charles to interpret their social life. By the second year of their marriage, neither of them had close living relations.

What had Charles said on the tennis court, the first day of September years ago? What was the first sentence he had written to her? How many telegrams had he sent?

In the first month of the war, Maudie's husband had been fatally injured, and Catherine was unable to comfort her. She'd grown distant from her friend, and Charles securely ruled the place Maudie had occupied. Now she bitterly regretted Maudie's absence.

Catherine's grandfather had died when she was a child, and though she had attended the funeral, she had no memory of the service. She did remember watching her widowed grandmother while she cut roses in the garden of her house a few months later. "The sound of your grandfather's voice has faded for me," the elderly woman had said. "I command his voice to return, but my ear has no memory. No one will ever speak my name as he did."

When she had seen the dismay on Catherine's childish face, she quickly added that it wasn't important. Not at all. Then Catherine's frail grandmother had looked away, the pruning shears forgotten in her hand, as the silver arrows of her tears plunged into the grass at her feet.

TWO STABLE BOYS carried the chairs, tables, and the writing desk from the library, freeing the carpet from the pointed legs that had pinned it to the floor. The boys stripped the shelves, loosely wrapping the books in sheets, newspapers, lengths of burlap and linen found in one of the storage rooms. Although they worked very slowly, Catherine didn't criticize but studied them from the doorway. She was in no hurry to follow the major's orders.

She was at the window as the boys stacked the books in wheelbarrows and pushed them to the stable, each jolt sliding the books out of line. In the afternoon, the boys grew careless, and books fell from the wheelbarrow, splitting their bindings, losing their pages. The younger boy looked up to see whether she'd noticed the papers blowing over the lawn. Catherine dropped the curtain back over the window, couldn't be bothered to reprimand them.

Later, Catherine stood in the library and closed her eyes, imagining that nothing had changed, since the scent of the books—ancient paper and leather—still lingered, as the odor of honey is inseparable from its comb. She blinked. Light from the tall windows slanted across the rows of empty shelves, transforming the room into an immense hive. She had a brief sense of peace, a humming contentment.

IN THE WEEKS since Catherine had announced the arrival of the doctors and hospital support staff was imminent, the servants had quietly rebelled. Catherine noticed that they were neglecting their work. No one wound the clocks. Silver was unpolished, the lamps unlit. The map of conduct that overlaid the house was torn. One morning, Catherine and the youngest housemaid approached each other in the corridor, and she saw that the girl's cap was crooked. The housemaid had boldly met her stare, and they passed each other without speaking. Catherine had walked five paces before she allowed herself to recognize the girl's insolence.

The household staff dwindled as the coachman, butler, footmen, and grooms, the odd men, hall boys, steward's-room and servants'-hall boys enlisted in a local battalion. All the able-bodied men. Although Catherine barely knew their names, she ceremoniously gave each man a watch in the music room and shook his hand. Godspeed.

Most of the maids went to work in a munitions factory, where wages were higher and their reddened hands would gradually acquire a yellow tint from the poisonous TNT.

The four remaining housemaids nestled the china with straw in wooden barrels and packed smaller items from desks, cupboards, and armoires into boxes and trunks. As a farewell gift, the women received new lisle stockings and one of Catherine's Callot Soeurs hats from last season.

Only the youngest servant boy and the elderly gardener stayed to attend Catherine and the estate.

ON THE AFTERNOON of a beautiful day, strangers in uniform entered the house, walked the corridors, gazed at the paintings, commanded the views from the windows. When Catherine encountered these strangers, she acknowledged them with a curt nod, her eyes registering surprise, as if she were unaware that the house was occupied. She fled to her suite of rooms on the third floor.

With the butler and the first footman gone to war, the gardener had taken it upon himself to act as majordomo, and Catherine asked him to identify the newcomers. He testily replied that they hadn't properly introduced themselves. In his worn jacket, his gnarled hand guarding the doorknob, the gardener was helpless against these efficient invaders. The men in uniform mockingly called him "the shepherd" and brushed him aside.

Outside, there was an atmosphere of feverish preparation as carriages, wagonettes, broughams, motorcars, and half a dozen other unfamiliar vehicles lined the back entrance road, their errant wheels immediately tearing up the lawn. Without anyone requesting permission, huge packing crates and boxes were stacked into a shoulder-high wedge along the kitchen corridor. The cellar was completely filled with supplies. Signs were affixed to interior walls and posts outside, providing directions to unfamiliar destinations: emergency, dry store, orderly station, stockroom, wards, receiving hall. A larger sign, Military Hospital, was secured over the scrolling black iron gate at the entrance to the estate.

Catherine's attention was caught by a distinguished older man who gently, tirelessly conducted this campaign. His name—Dr. McCleary—was called from early in the morning until lights-out, but the doctor seldom raised his voice. He apparently had little regard for military protocol, since he casually layered a tweed jacket over his medical garb.

THE JAGGED HOURS passed, broken, snared by lines on the face of the clock. Catherine sullenly watched the workmen as they moved boxes, trod the gravel drive, smoked, talked—utterly commonplace activities that occupied a familiar realm and now excluded her. Everything was stubbornly set against her wishes.

Each morning required greater effort for her to rise from bed, sit in a chair. Each mouthful of food was as tasteless as paper. This gave her a bitter satisfaction as the true nature of another pleasure was revealed. The burden of photographs on the dresser, the ormolu clock and porcelain figures on the mantelpiece, a feathered hat on its stand, were flimsy reminders of her place in the world.

She numbly picked up her clothes in the order they had been dropped the previous evening. She struggled to dress herself, the tiny pearl buttons on the blouse awkward as pebbles, the jacket and riding trousers cumbersome, unyielding. A maid's clever fingers had always fastened hooks and eyes, tightened the laces of her clothing, retrieved the dresses abandoned on the floor, collapsed circles of silk.


On Sale
Dec 1, 2006
Page Count
304 pages

Jody Shields

About the Author

Jody Shields is the author of two novels, the bestselling novel The Fig Eater and The Crimson Portrait. Formerly Design Editor of the New York Times magazine and a Contributing Editor of American Vogue, Shields is also a screenwriter and a collected artist. She is a resident of New York City.

Learn more about this author