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It is the beginning of the 1900s. Henry MacAlpine, an artist, is in a self-imposed exile on an island off the coast of Brittany. He lures his biggest critic to the island to paint his portrait. "You know from the beginning something dramatic is going to happen," says Rona Brinlee of The Book Mark in Atlantic Beach Florida. "But still, at the end, you'll say, 'Wow, I didn't know that was coming.'"
I need no models now; I haven't painted any woman under forty for some time. They guard their womenfolk carefully here, and it is a small island. Besides, I don't find all these lacy coifs particularly appealing, and they don't go about with their heads uncovered. Nor, for the most part, are they particularly appealing subjects, unless you like to paint weather-beaten faces and the effects of back-breaking work or scant food. Not the sort of subject matter that usually appeals, and they are not open-faced; you would have to know them much better to penetrate their minds and turn them into something worth looking at. Still, beauty can flourish in even the most inhospitable terrain. There is one girl I would love to paint; she has the eyes of the devil. But we have done no more than exchange glances over an expanse of church. I fascinate her, I know. I am to her what you were for me: a new world, full of opportunities, offering everything she wants and cannot win by herself unaided. She wants to leave this island, to see and be different things. She dreams at night of what it must be like, to be something other than she is. She longs for freedom, and is hated for it by many on this island. Her desires have made her difficult and unsympathetic. It will eat away at that beauty soon enough.
If I intervened, her fate would change: whatever happened, she would go, would not marry the honest fisherman who is her destiny, would not be aged before her time by hardship and pregnancy. Lord only knows how she would end up. But high or low, part of her wants to take the chance, to roll the dice. Anything but what is mapped out for her here. If only I would force her hand. Goodness, I see the temptation! But I won't; it is not for me to change her future. All she has to do is get on the boat and not come back. It's simple. If you can change someone's life you have a responsibility to them forever; it is a heavy burden which you must not shirk. Do you not agree, William?
I have painted one portrait, though. Still life might be a better term. It's unfinished, like most of my work these days. But not through laziness; it cannot be completed. About a year ago, a boy was washed up at the place called Treac'h Salus, a fine sandy beach, about twenty minutes' walk from here. No-one knew who he was; not from this island certainly. Perhaps he'd been swept off a fishing boat in a storm the week before, but no-one had heard of such a thing. Perhaps he was a cabin boy on one of the passing steam ships, a stowaway, even. Enquiries were made, but he came from the sea—that was all anyone ever discovered. Those who know such things thought he'd been in the water a week or so, not much longer. I was having a morning walk when I saw the small group of islanders gathered around him in the distance; there was something calm, reverential, about their pose; they were praying. You remember Millet's Angelus? The way the woman's head inclines to the ground, the way the man fiddles nervously with his hat, both lost in thought? The intensity of prayer depicted so simply and effectively?
My curiosity disturbed them as I approached over the sand, but I could not keep away; I needed to see what was producing that perfect pose. My reaction was quite different to theirs. They were reflective; I was fascinated. They were resigned; I was excited, stimulated. The brilliant colours of decay, the complex bundle of angles and curves on the twisted body, half-eaten and swollen. The green tint, reflecting purple and red in the sun that crept over an exposed leg, so recently young and strong. The way the majesty of the human form, God's image, could be reduced so easily by the sea to the obscene and grotesque. And the eye—one only, for the other had been eaten out of its socket. One eye was preserved, a pale sky blue shining like hope in that jumble of mouldy, stinking carcass. It still had personality and life, something which seemed almost amused by its predicament. And not fearful or distressed; perfectly calm, almost serene. An echo of the soul which survived despite everything that had happened. I could see it watching me, seeing how I would react.
Haunting. Literally so, because I could think of nothing else for days; I felt I knew it, had seen it looking at me before. I came back in the afternoon with a sketchbook, but the disapproval would have been so intense it wasn't worth trying to settle down. And for some reason I could not draw it properly without actually being there. All I could get down was that eye, which drowned out the rest of the scene like a brilliant light in the darkness. Even though the image was fixed in my mind, the composition just so, the rest of the boy kept slipping away from me.
They buried him next day in the grim little graveyard, with a full funeral as if he had been one of their own. No small thing, that; funerals are expensive and these people have little enough to spare. But he could so easily have been one of their own children. A touching ceremony, really. Stark and austere like their own lives. The congregation gathered in the churchyard overlooking the sea, a genuine, heartfelt grief for someone they had never known, and never even suspected existed. They are good people, truly they are, though your expression as you listen to my tale shows how worthless they are to you.
One curious thing did happen a few days later, which even you might find intriguing. Maybe not. But the police heard about it and came over from Quiberon to find out what they could, and were properly cross that the boy had been buried already. Even threatened to dig him up again, although the priest soon put paid to that idea. The curiosity was that, to a man and a woman, they refused to say anything—not where the boy was found, nor what they did with him, nor any suspicions they might have had about who he was. They closed ranks completely, and responded to all questions with a sullen, stubborn silence. The boy was theirs, now. This was their business. Their obstinacy when confronted with anything to do with the outside world is extraordinary.
Excerpted from The Portrait by Iain Pears. Copyright © 2005 by Iain Pears. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Hardcover, a division of Penguin Group USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.