The district of the guild of painters in Orange was a warren of ancient buildings. Ochre-colored Roman stone structures barely cleaved from one another by cobblestone alleyways, which were little more than footpaths.
It was said that painters toiled there because no other merchandise was so flat as to be carried among such a tightly packed maze of stone.
Even in these compact spaces, the city was alive with the dealings of business. Customers entered and departed painters’ houses; some clutched their newly purchased art or painted manuscripts.
The Painter that Eva sought had his rooms in a corner dwelling on the edge of the district, befitting his ever-rising status. He had moved from the crowded heart of the warren some thirteen years past to his ancientand elegant house.
The erupting fervor of holy building had served him well.
In an age when each burgeoning city of means wanted an imposing, inspiring cathedral to house the relics of saints and fill the coffers with the largesse of wealthy pilgrims, painters who could combine colored enamels with carved wood to match the grandeur of stained glass were greatly in favor.
The Painter was waiting for Eva when she reached his studio. She glimpsed him keeping vigil by the front window.
She tarried before making entrance, admiring the towering exterior stone wall of the city’s Roman theatre. Though she had seen it countless times, it never ceased to inspire, for unlike so many Roman structures in Provence, the theatre had not dissolved to ruin. She could imagine a play by Sophocles or Euripides being performed there.
Yet she need focus on painting now and think not on dramatic stagings. She lifted her eyes from the theater and entered the Painter’s triple-story villa.
Passing under the lintel, she breathed in slowly through her nostrils the startling, brain-cleansing smell of paint on wood. To Eva it was a holy odor, like the smoke of incense in Solomon’s Temple lifting to the Almighty.
On a small stone table were multiple grayish clamshells filled with paints of various shades. The Painter had clearly just finished using the newly mixed paints to color the series of pearwood rosettes she had carved the month previous. They lay spread out on a canvas covered rectangular table in the center of his workspace. A few still glistened brightly, covered in bright beautiful hues of red, pink, yellow, azure, green, and purple, and still obviously wet, but she knew none would ever appear entirely dry.
Few understood the art, but the Painter was able to mix his pigments and solvents to produce an effect that seemed to bring life to the dead wood he adorned with his enamels, a way to make the paint remain glossy without rubbing or flaking off with the passage of time. The red, she knew, was produced with cinnabar obtained from Iberia, dried and crushed to a fine, bright red powder and mixed with certain oils. The azure, even more costly, came from crushed lapis lazuli from Italy, and left a luminescent, jewel-like effect that sparkled with a faint golden shimmer on parchment or wood alike. Paintings from centuries past adorned in the blue of lapis lazuli lost not a glimmer of color, ever appeared as if stroked onto the surface earlier in the day. There was no other color more costly, not even purple.
At the sight of her, the Painter deposited his sable hairbrushes in a wooden bowl filled with turpentine and removed his spattered white smock.
“Ah, my gray-robed Beguine. I thought the knowledge of our meeting may have vanished in your orchard of peras,” said the Painter, turning his lips in a smile that did not engage his eyes. Eva took note.
“I brought the wood you requested.” Eva handed him the piece.
“Ah yes. Pera wood,” said the Painter, reaching for the rectangular object. He examined the rich brown color of the smooth-grained timber. “To simply behold such a tree, one would not know the beauty or value of its wood.” His finger moved the length of the wood grain. “Do you have supply enough for the choir, sacristy, and altars? They will require perhaps forty more pieces of this size.” The Painter set down the wood, turned to his stone jars.
“The ten trees nearest the valley of the Rhône have reached good size this season. They should yield twice that bounty.”
“Splendid. His grace, the bishop of Avignon, will pay handsomely for the adornments. You must cut the wood now and let it dry over winter.” The Painter stopped closing the stone jars with pigments, cocked his head sideways, and narrowed his eyes. “There must be no cracking as in la cathedrale in Arles.”
Eva clucked her tongue once and let indignity fill her voice. “That was but one piece, and three years past at that.”
The Painter took a step back, held up his hands in conciliation, color-etched palms outward. “I know this, and you repaired it admirably, dear Eva. I examined it anew on my recent journey to Arles and it remains whole, have no fear.” He closed his right hand except for his index finger and pointed it at her. “In Avignon, there must be no such failing.” He poked her thrice in the shoulder. It had ever been his way of chastening. “The city is special to Rome in ways I do not comprehend. Popes enjoy making sojourn there and celebrating mass. Success in la cathedrale Notre Dame de Doms will expand our good name and our business.You most certainly will earn your coinage this time.”
“The one exception notwithstanding, do not I always surpass expectation?” She gave the most winsome smile she could muster, let the corners of her lips droop to a frown. “Although you receive all recognition.”
Her eyes glanced casually about the room, but her mind was working like a thresher, trying to sift out what felt different about this place, this large villa occupied by only one man. Another presence was here. She could sense it. Whether corporeal or ethereal, such knowledge eluded her.
“I never reveal the name of my carver and my customers do not inquire,” replied the Painter, seemingly oblivious to Eva’s visual scanning of his studio.
“I never know who would approve or disapprove of a woman supplying the ornate carving of a masculine cathedral or monastery,” he stated with a broad wave of his hand. He proceeded to bend over the table and blow lightly on the still drying rosettes.
“Slender fingers make the most intricate designs and latticework,” replied Eva, collapsing into a black leather chair. Exhaling, she turned her full attention toward the Painter, a squat man with powerful limbs, a wild shock of black hair and penetrating, hazel-colored eyes.
Her thoughts returned to marching armies. “If the Moors again crossed the Pyrenees for Carcassonne, you would surely know it before this lowly Beguine,” she said coyly, as she turned one corner of her mouth slightly upward. “You claim I was your primary informant of the armies from the North.” She found herself questioning at that moment why she had told the Painter the same day of what she had seen, but had waited until this day to tell Claris. Had she somehow known Claris would ask of her father?“I may have been the first to tell you, but I doubt the singular one. Secrets give not health to the bones, nor the soul.”
Raising her eyebrows, she slowly allowed her lips to form a wide grin. She loved to knock people off-balance emotionally, leaving them uncertain how to respond to her. It gave opportunity for her to supply the answer to the dilemma she had created with the right word, or phrase, or compliment.
“Unburden yourself of any dark knowledge you carry my Painter. Even as you mock me your eyes betray you.”
“And your eyes bedevil me, my handsome Beguine, for I could not paint anything so beautiful if I practiced until blessed Jhesu returns.” In past days, he would have smiled in an explosion of light like only her Painter could do and they would both laugh, even as she pretended not to be moved by the compliment. But the smile was faint, the light absent, and he averted his eyes, which was a scarce thing indeed.
Eva followed his eyes with her own and moved to meet his turning gaze. “I know that blessed Jhesu has called you into many business dealings with bishops, men who are not always discreet with the knowledge they possess.” She shaped her slightly playful expression into one of earnestness. “I implore you, sir, do not speak in riddles. What news have you of the war against heresy? For that is what it must be.”
The Painter’s eyes stopped looking away and met her gaze. For a moment, he observed her determined expression. His look was as those who had studied her face, seeking knowledge of how a lady with such fair skin had dusky eyes and hair. She had been told once they were a shade of brown so rich as to be but a whisper from ebony.
Yet the Painter knew of her lineage of a pale German fatherand dark-haired Provençal mother. His eyes seemed to be probing beyond flesh and bone, as if to assess the tenacity of her soul. It felt as a test and was unnerving. She matched his gaze as one would return a blow in a tournament. A half smile lifted one corner of his mouth and moved his eyes. Good. “The gift of discerning is truly yours. You speak of Bishops with secrets to tell, and you are right, as always with such things.” The Painter hoisted the pearwood once more and turned it in his hands and studied it as if it held a mystery beyond fathoming. After a moment, he lifted his eyes off the timber and fixed them squarely on her dark soul windows. “There is one, a Lombart,who has journeyed a fortnight from Siena with news. Let him unburden himself to you, Eva. He carries tales of your paire for your ears alone.”
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