Excerpt of The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe
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I let myself into the house, stand looking up the stairs, turn, go into the study, pour a whisky and soda. Today's mail is waiting, envelopes on a salver. My man, Harding, has laid a fire, but I don't trouble to light it. I leave my ulster on, stand sipping from the tumbler with a gloved hand, staring at the day's letters.
I know what they are. Invitations. Invitations for a weekend in the country. Invitations to dine. More invitations than I am accustomed to receiving. Now people court me. Queer old Charlie Gaunt has become a minor, middle-aged bachelor celebrity. Even Richards and Merton, long-time acquaintances with whom I dined tonight in the Athenaeum, did not allow my new eminence to pass unremarked. For years, I was never anyone's first choice as a portrait painter, never admitted as a full member of the Royal Academy, only very lately handed the privilege of sporting the initials a.r.a. after my name. Merely an Associate. Tardy laurels finally pressed upon an indifferent brow.
The highest praise ever bestowed by my fellow artists was to say I ought to have been a history painter, my rendering of marble in oil paint was as exquisite as Alma-Tadema's. Cosgrave, with a picture dealer's disdain for the truth, once described me to a dewlapped matron as a "court painter." By that he meant I had doodled up a portrait of a demented claimant to the throne of Spain (of which there are legion), a sallow-complexioned fellow who sat in my studio morosely munching walnuts and strewing the floor with their shells. I cannot recall his name, only that he wore a wig, but never the same wig twice. This led to an indistinct element to the portrayal of His Catholic Majesty's coiffure which mightily displeased him.
But now, the mountain comes to Mohammed. Artistic success won in an unexpected quarter. The dry old stick Charlie Gaunt publishes a volume of verse. Love poems, no less. For months, much of London society has been mildly engrossed in tea-time speculation about the identity of the lady of whom I wrote. A small assist to sales. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Times was laudatory and the Edinburgh Review kind in a niggling, parsimonious Scottish way.
Yesterday, I ran into Machar, the Glasgow refugee, outside Piccadilly Station. He was arch, and I was short with him.
"We hadn't guessed, Gaunt," he cooed. "I mean the book that's a side of you we hadn't suspected."
I challenged him. "You've read it, have you?"
"Haven't had time to read it yet. But I bought it."
He was lying. If he had it at all, it was borrowed from a lending library. "Well," I said, brandishing my stick to hail a passing cab, "then you don't know what you're talking about, do you, Machar?" I showed him my coattails, spun off without another word.
One of the envelopes on the tray attracts my eye, addressed by an unfamiliar hand and bearing a Canadian stamp. Inside, I discover a newspaper clipping already a month old.
The Macleod Gazette
July 17, 1896
JERRY POTTS DEAD
AN HISTORICAL LANDMARK GONE
Jerry Potts is dead. Through the whole North West, in many parts of eastern Canada, and in England itself, this announcement will excite sorrow, in many cases sympathy, and in all, interest. Jerry was a type, and a type that is fast disappearing. A half-breed, with all that name implies, he had the proud distinction of being a very potent factor in the discovery (if it might be so called) and settlement of the western part of the North West Territories. When Colonels French and Macleod left their worried, and almost helpless column at Sweet Grass in '74, after a march of 900 miles and a vain search for the much vaunted "Whoop-Up" it was the veriative accident of fortune that in Benton they found Jerry Potts . . .
My eyes skim the remainder of the obituary, settle on the last paragraph.
Copyright © 2002 by G & M Vanderhaeghe Productions Inc.. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.