Read A Masterpiece of Revenge Online

Authors: J.J. Fiechter

A Masterpiece of Revenge

Copyright © 1997, 2011 by Editions Denoel

North American edition copyright © 1998, 2011 by Arcade Publishing, In.c

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.

ISBN: 978-1-61145-601-1



Death by Publication


To my very dear brother Georges

and in everlasting memory of

Franfoise and Gilles


“In Claude Lorrain's paintings nostalgia for the past bonds with the beckoning call of the future…. We are drawn toward what lies beyond the horizon, toward that source of light in the sky that becomes our life's spiritual goal.”


Though the methods and techniques of scientific analysis of artworks described in this novel are based upon the latest research, this remains a work of fiction written purely for the reader's pleasure. Any resemblance between the characters and actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

First Sketches

ane leapt out of bed and strode to the far wall of her hotel room. With both hands she lifted the painting off its hook. The unsightly thing had been assaulting her delicate sensibilities from the moment she'd checked in, and when she'd opened her eyes that morning there it was again, in all its hideousness. She couldn't take it for another second.

Others might have found the work in question innocuous enough. It was a depiction of Nice's harbor, showing a few boats floating on some brackish water. To Jane, however, it was an affront. How could anyone call such a monstrosity art? Why
hotels always insist on putting up these wretched eyesores?

“Much better,” she said out loud, leaning the painting against the wall — facing away.

Jane threw open the curtains, called room service and ordered tea, then ran a bath. She turned on the radio. Ravel's
was playing. She smiled at a memory of the time she had danced to the piece for Peter. The look in his eyes as he watched her — mesmerized, like Herod by Salome. Peter had told her she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He had also left her. That was not to be forgiven.

Switching off the radio, Jane banished dark thoughts of revenge. Here she was in the south of France, the morning sun streaming through the windows. Far, far away was the dreary English winter. Today was a glorious beginning. Today she would take full command of the heart and soul of Charles Vermeille.

The day before, just off the plane from London, she had taken a taxi straight to the hotel, without so much as glancing out the window at this Mediterranean paradise where tourists milled about, mostly Northern Europeans on the run from their native winters. She had lingered for a little while in the hotel lobby, in the hope of spotting Vermeille, if only for a moment, before locking herself away in her room. She needed to be alone, to unwind after all those weeks of hard work, and to put the final touches to her presentation.

What had brought Jane to Nice was a symposium organized by the International Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts. The invitation to speak had taken her a little by surprise. She was aware her article in
Conservation Studies
, “Inert-Gas Preservation Methods for Paintings,” had created something of a stir in the world of art restoration, but never would she have dreamed it would mean getting invited to Nice. She was but the director of a small laboratory specializing in analysis and restoration. Attending this symposium were the world's most illustrious curators and historians — Jan Kelch from Berlin, Marcel Roethlisberger from Geneva, Christopher Baswell from Yale, and … Charles Vermeille of the College de France.

Charles Vermeille! She still couldn't believe it was true. His work on the French landscape painter Claude Lorrain had opened up worlds of wonder to her. Vermeille single-handedly had provided a vocabulary for understanding and appreciating Truth and Beauty. She owed him so much.

Meeting Vermeille had been in her thoughts for some time now. There was a kinship between them, and though they had never met Jane had convinced herself Vermeille would instantly recognize this. She couldn't wait for the expression of surprise in his eyes. Yes, of course he would be dazzled by her beauty — all men were. But with Vermeille there would be a deeper recognition of connectedness.

She smiled approvingly at her reflection in the mirror.

First things first. To captivate Vermeille, she needed to impress her distinguished colleagues here at the conference. Doing that while discoursing on the rather dry subject of art conservation was not going to be easy. Jane felt passion for her profession. That wasn't the problem. The problem, she felt, was that her expertise was technical, not lyrical. One had to proceed methodically.

And this symposium was hardly the sort of occasion at which you could simply stand up and tell amusing anecdotes — not that Jane would ever in the world have considered talking spontaneously. She was a perfectionist. The presentation she was to give the next day had been composed with meticulous care. Every word had its place.

Preparing her paper had meant professional sacrifices. It had meant turning down business and taking long absences from the lab while she searched for the slides to illustrate her points.

But it would be worth it all. At last the great day had arrived. Bring on Charles Vermeille!

It was early still. The symposium didn't begin until ten. Jane decided to forget her bath and headed to the hotel's swimming pool.

She swam a couple of lengths in the tepid water. The air was alive with the scent of flowers. How sweet life could be.

Moments later, lying on a chaise longue facing the Mediterranean, she read through the information in the packet she'd been given when she registered. Inside were her name-tag, a list of guests, and the schedule and order of presentations. There she was: “J
Caldwell, Oxford Institute for Art Research,” scheduled for 4:45 PM on the first day — tomorrow. She saw that Madeline Haussmann would be speaking before her.

That was definitely not good news. Haussmann was chief conservationist for the entire French museum system. Jane had once attended a convention at which she had spoken brilliantly about her research. Haussmann's energy and erudition were prodigious. She would be a very tough act to follow. For the first time since she'd arrived, Jane Caldwell felt nervous.

She hurried back to her room and spent the day practicing her delivery.

Early the next morning Jane entered the auditorium of the convention center, located a few minutes' walk from the hotel. It was crowded with guests and conference officials. Her heart was pounding. He was somewhere in this chaos. She scanned the crowd.

What if he hadn't come at the last minute? No, that was quite impossible. He was one of the world's experts on French art, and one of the stars of the convention. Without Charles Vermeille in attendance the whole affair might as well have been canceled. The thought soothed her, and she listened with unfeigned interest to the opening remarks given by Mitchell Ainsworth, a pioneer of radiography at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Jane spotted Vermeille during lunch on the terrace. He was sitting with three other guests. She nearly made up her mind to go straight up to him and tell him how much she admired him, but restrained herself. There was no reason to rush matters. In a few hours his blue eyes could feast upon her at leisure. He would see her at the lectern, looking composed and beautiful — and he would fall beneath her sway.

When she took her place at the speakers' table minutes before her talk, however, Jane's calm began to evaporate. Madeline Haussmann, damn her, had given a tour-de-force performance, concluding her talk to thunderous applause. During the short intermission that followed, those who had come only to hear Haussmann speak had left. Jane could see empty seats. She remembered what Sarah Bernhardt was purported to say before going on stage: “Bombs, war … dear God, anything but stage fright!”

Jane's turn came. She approached the lectern like a Christian walking into the Colosseum. Taking a deep breath, she launched into her presentation.

She opened with a catalog of the devastating effects certain nefarious agents have on works of art: microscopic organisms, egg-laying insects, sunlight, artificial light, vibration, pollution, candle smoke, sudden variations in temperature. Using before-and-after slides of paintings — which elicited gasps from the audience — Jane proposed that preventive conservation was most urgently called for. Museums and collections needed to find ways of monitoring and controlling the environments in which they placed their masterpieces. Their sacred duty was to care for these irreplaceable works of timeless beauty.

Jane warmed to her subject and her stage fright subsided. She was able to make eye contact with members of the audience. There he was, sitting in the front row. Vermeille seemed — she could tell this instantly — both present and absent at the same time. He was listening and watching her, his legs crossed elegantly, but he also gave the impression of being somewhere else.

A realization struck her: to a man preoccupied by his own thoughts, Jane Caldwell was but another speaker on the program, nothing more. Disillusionment struck fast and deep. Jane needed to summon all her strength to get through the remainder of her presentation.

The applause that followed rang hollow. How hard she found it to acknowledge the words of praise from people who approached her afterward. All she could feel was bitter disappointment. The one person on whom she had wanted to have an effect had, as far as she could discern, felt nothing.

Hurrying back to the hotel, Jane shut herself in her room. She was filled with rage and also vaguely and sadly resigned. It had something to do with Vermeille's expression of indifference. Eyes that see everything and nothing. It was a look she knew. Her father.

With shaking hands Jane poured herself a glass of Scotch. Thank heavens she had bought some at the duty-free shop. She took a long swallow.

Perhaps he had noticed her after all. It was possible. What had she expected? That he would jump to his feet the minute she'd finished her talk and publicly declare his love? Jane chided herself for being so naive. Nobody worth having would do that sort of thing, least of all Charles Vermeille.

Feeling more in control of her emotions — and assisted by two more glasses of Scotch — Jane dressed for dinner. The program announced there would be a guided tour of Nice's old city for all the speakers, followed by a “typical Provencal” dinner at a restaurant on the harbor. Vermeille would certainly be there. Jane had in mind a new strategy. She would ignore him, in haughtily superb fashion — a mirror of the way he had ignored her.

Vermeille was not on the guided tour (Jane might have guessed it was not the sort of thing that would appeal to him), but he did join the group at the restaurant. Jane was seated when he arrived, surrounded — as she'd planned — by a group of men vying for her attention. She knew she looked stunning in her simple white dress, draped at the shoulder with a blue clasp. Vermeille's eyes met hers and for a second their gazes locked. Then someone hailed him, and he left to sit down at a table three tables from hers.

That brief look was enough to stir her heart. All was not lost. During dinner she behaved as if he were looking at her the whole time. She offered her best profile to him; she made calculated but graceful gestures; she formed irresistible smiles; she fluttered her eyelashes; she moved her shoulders sinuously. Her rapt suitors mistook these allurements as designed exclusively for their benefit, were delighted, and fawned all the more.

Jane had decided beforehand to depart abruptly after the dessert course — like a disappearing apparition, like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight. Leave them with an appetite for more, she thought.

The next morning, Jane sat in the front row of the auditorium — in the very seat Vermeille had occupied the day before. She wanted to be as close to him as possible, close enough to weave her spell.

The tide of Vermeille's paper was “The Fruits of Collaboration Between the Arts and the Sciences.” Jane wondered if he spoke as beautifully as he wrote. She was sure he did. It was, after all, his mind that had first drawn her to him. From photos in magazines she'd known he was handsome. A leonine head, slightly thrown back, with a powerful neck. A gaze that looked into the distance but also seemed to go to the heart of matters. Square jaw, strong, straight nose, cleft chin. Everything about him bespoke virility and authority. Jane thought he was the very distillation of masculinity.

Vermeille's voice absorbed her from the start. It was the voice of an orator — soft, vibrant, low. While he talked, his eyes lifted toward his listeners, a quiet smile signaled the innate and impeccable self-assurance with which he performed every gesture. His figures of speech were daring but always apt.

Swept along by the voice, Jane forgot all about her emotions and strategies and simply listened to what the man had to say. Vermeille's lecture compared the working methods of the seventeenth-century French painters Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. An analysis of the original designs of two particular paintings served as his point of departure. The magic of infrared spectrometry had brought to the surface what heretofore had been hidden beneath layers of paint, affording invaluable clues as to the artists' earliest intentions.

Relying on the expert work of scientists at the Städelsche Kunst Institute in Frankfurt, which owned two of these painters' masterpieces — Lorrain's
Landscape with Noli Me Tangere
and Poussin's
Stormy Landscape with Pyramis and Thisbe
— Vermeille demonstrated the significant differences between the earliest sketches for the works and their final composition, explaining why and how the hidden stylistic elements allowed the viewer to integrate certain details in other paintings by these artists.

Jane the student of art was held in thrall. Jane the woman fumed. Not once during the course of his talk did Vermeille so much as look at her — not once did his eyes meet hers, never the slightest gesture nor the smallest sign of recognition. Not once! Summoning her concentration she tried to cast a spell over him, to force her presence upon him. This might sound silly, but Jane swore it had worked in the past. She could beam her gaze upon her prey, and he, feeling its intensity, would look around in an effort to locate the source. Not this time.

After Vermeille ‘s talk, Jane dragged herself back to the hotel, feeling as she used to when she was a little girl and her father had humiliated her for some shortcoming. Why did everything always have to refer back to her loveless childhood? Spotting her in the lobby, the organizer of the symposium approached her, an exaggerated smile on his face.

“Ah, Miss Caldwell! I do hope you will honor us with your presence at the gala dinner tomorrow evening. I have put you at the same table as Jan Kelch and Charles Vermeille.”

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