Painters in Winter: Chapter Fourteen

Shinn, Henri, and Sloan

Shinn, Henri, and Sloan

There go Mr. and Mrs. Owens, says the young husband.

Oh, come away from the window, says his wife, and eat your breakfast. You’ll be late to work.

They’re taking a cab, he says. Have you noticed? That Mr. Owens takes a cab nearly every morning? He must be well off, I should think. Have you any idea what business he’s in?

And just how would I have that? says the wife, joining her husband at the window. She peers down into Fifty-second Street, watching the cab disappear from sight. He doesn’t speak to anyone, she says, as far as I can tell.

He is a queer fish, isn’t he? Looks as though he’s mad at the world.

I think he’s just an unhappy soul. His wife must be very difficult.

The husband laughs. Now, why would you think that? he says.

She just strikes me as being very…hard.

Hard? She’s quite attractive. She’s very attractive.

As if you can’t be one and not the other. Men are fools. Come eat your breakfast.

She used to be a dancer, you know.

I know, says the wife. But how do you?

Another smile. Mrs. Cuddy told me, he says. But anyone could tell, just by looking at her. The way she carries herself. She’s very tall.

I’ve noticed, says the wife. But have you noticed that Mr. Owens often has paint on his fingers when he comes home?

Paint? The husband looks up from his shredded wheat biscuit to his wife’s face. Did you say paint? What sort of paint?

Paint, she says.

Perhaps it’s ink, he says. Perhaps Mr. Owens is a printer.

Paint, she says, sitting down at the table. Blue and green and brown paint.

Well! says the husband. Then he says, No, I never noticed. Then, after picking up his spoon, he says, Aren’t you the little Sherlock Holmes?

She grins, showing even white teeth.

And they quarrel, she says. Oh yes. Indeed they quarrel. Do Mr. and Mrs. Owens. Sometimes they’re very loud.

I’ve never heard them, says the husband, suddenly tired of talking about the Owenses. Even so, he reflexively asks, What do they quarrel about?

His wife shrugs. I’ve no idea, she says. Although Mrs. Bledsoe did tell me that she once heard Mr. Owens scream at Mrs. Owens for putting on weight. Can you imagine the gall of some men?

He wrinkles his forehead. Then says, Could you possibly warm the milk? I think I’d like some warm milk on my biscuit.


Mr. David Owens.

Mr. Arthur B. Davies.

Standing in West Thirty-ninth Street, he reaches up and pays the old cabman, then he adjusts his hat and picks his way through the slush to the pavement. His heart sinks when he discovers that she’s walked on ahead, without him.

Mrs. David Owens.

Miss Edna Potter.

Who stops now, and glances back over a shoulder, almost like a mother checking on a dawdling child. Her hands buried in a black alpaca muff, the brim and blue veil of her hat lifting at a sudden gust of wind.

She continues on to the studio building, and gathers up her skirts climbing the stairs.

Morning, Mr. Davies, says a man on his way out of a tailor shop. I hear we’re supposed to get more snow.

I rather doubt that, says Arthur B. Davies, turning his face upwards. It’s the wrong kind of sky.


In a three-room flat in New Rochelle, a suburb north of the city, Kenneth Hay is watching a tiny spot of blood appear through the lather on his throat. He cocks his head to one side, and leans closer to the small round mirror hanging above the washstand. Then he drops his razor into the basin, and grabbing a towel, wipes off his face. One half clean-shaven, the other still bristly. He presses a thumb against the nick. And remains frozen there, listening to his heart beat rapidly.

He’s never in his life felt more nervous. Bilious. In greater jeopardy. All through the night he lay sleepless on his bed, stunned by tension. He rolled and smoked a great number of cigarettes, pressing them all out into a heavy white tea saucer balanced on his chest. Whenever he moved—and he moved often, thrashing around, beating his fists against the mattress, kicking the footboard—the saucer would slide off, sprinkling bedclothes with ashes. Of a sudden, he’d fling himself into a sitting position, then leap from bed and pace the floor, the back of a hand pressed against his lips and teeth. What will happen to me? What is going to happen? Over and over: What is going to happen to me? Over and over and over: seeing Mr. Butler on the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in Manhattan. More than four million people in the city, and they run into Mr. Butler! Who was supposed to be in Pittsburg, on business! How dare you bring scandal upon my good name? vituperated Butler. How dare you! And Catherine shouting for all the world to hear, I have no further affection for you, Mr. Butler. Calling her husband Mr. Butler. And I am prepared to work my fingers to the bone for Kenneth. Calling Hay Kenneth.

How dare you!

My fingers to the bone for Kenneth.

Over and over, through the longest night he’s ever passed, Hay kept seeing them both, seeing Butler, seeing Catherine, and watching them go off together quarreling. A crowd of people stared. Some shook their heads, intolerant, appalled. Disgusted. A few laughed. Hay stood on the street corner numb from head to heel. He has no memory of riding the commuter train home.

Now, he removes his thumb from his throat. The bleeding has stopped. No, there it’s starting again.

He doesn’t know how he’s going to get through this day. Tuesday. The fourteenth of January. Should he telephone? Should he flee? He has relations in Maryland, he could—

Hay turns from the washstand, snatching his shirt from a chair, then buttoning it on as he roams the bedroom. The bed a confusion of sheets and blankets. The bed.

Catherine was to…visit one afternoon; she promised—she promised only yesterday! She’d worked up the courage, come to a decision, all that remained was to choose the date. Soon, Kenneth, my darling. As soon as possible! She would take a mid-morning train, he’d meet her, they’d walk here from the station. He suggested she wear black. That way, if they were to meet someone of Hay’s acquaintance, he could introduce Catherine as his sister from—from Delaware, recently widowed.

They were discussing just that, the black dress, the mourning veil, when they turned into Broadway last evening and came suddenly face to face with Catherine’s husband.

How dare you!

How, indeed? Hay is not an adventurer, not a seducer, heaven knows; he is an ordinary man of thirty, of poor means, of mild disposition, a traveling bookseller. Never married. Inexperienced. All that he knows of the sexual act is what he’s read in the stories of Maupassant. Except for Kinetoscope pictures, he’s never seen a woman in a state of nakedness. And the first time that he fondled a woman’s bosom was on Monday. They were in Catherine’s parlor, on Catherine’s sofa; a romantic novel called Three Weeks was open upon her lap. When he put a hand boldly upon her right breast, her lips parted, her eyes closed! And she nearly touched him—she actually squeezed his knee—but then her daughter came home from school. Instead of a caress, she gave him a check. Thank you so much for stopping by, Mr. Hay. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the book immensely….

Hay sits down on the side of the bed and puts his face into his hands. He should do something, but what? Get dressed, take the train, go to work? Impossible! How can he even think of selling books today, of following his routine, of going from door to door? What, then? What should he do?

Still bleeding a little from his throat, Hay sags slowly—very slowly—over onto the mattress, draws up his knees, and hugs the pillow to his hot face.


Edna on the model stand, gloriously naked.

With goose bumps.

She rubs one hand briskly up and down her arm, then chafes her hands together, and finally resumes her pose—left arm crooked, and held languid, above her head; right arm across her belly, one foot extended, toes flexed.

Lift your chin, says Davies.

And she does, after shooting him an irritable look.

He sighs, lays down his brush, crosses the studio, and using a stretcher bar, repeatedly strikes the heat pipe. Not that he expects it to produce any results—the janitor here is such a swine!—but perhaps Edna will feel more kindly toward him for trying.

Though he rather doubts it.

Returning to the easel, he picks up his brush and adds a speck of white to the green on his palette. But just as he begins to paint again (mysterious goddess in a Mediterranean world), Edna makes a fierce, quick gesture with both arms (vexed referee at a boxing match) and bolts suddenly from the platform, her long white buttocks slapping together. She’s cold! She’s freezing to death! She can see her own breath! Besides everything else that she does for Davies, is she now supposed to get sick and die for him, develop a fatal pneumonia for his high-and-mighty art? She’s cold. Doesn’t he realize that? She’s shivering.

While Edna puts on her robe and buttons it closed, Davies sits down on the faded old sofa that came with the studio. Crosses one leg over the other, wearily.

Her pique, of course, has nothing whatever to do with the lack of heat. Why, two years ago, she would gladly disrobe for Davies in the hills of West Orange on a frigid December day; cheerfully, wantonly would she dance naked for him in February by a secluded frozen lake in the Adirondacks, straight dark hair blowing behind her, tiny brown nipples puckered in the cold. Such a pagan! His perfect muse. His ideal model.

Now his quarrelsome mistress.

Is Davies never to have any peace? Any lasting contentment? It’s so unfair! Is this some kind of punishment? (Absurd even to consider such a thing, but while Davies is a modern man, secular to the core, he is also the son of a Methodist minister.)

When he first took up with Edna, not long after he’d moved back to the city from Congers, the excitement and romance—the passion—of their love affair more than compensated for its difficulties. The strain of secrecy, the guilt that Davies bore whenever he visited Lucy and the two boys. The expense.

Edna was everything that Lucy was not and could never be! Lucy was big-boned, awkward, earth-bound; Edna was trim, graceful, rarefied. Pliant. Lucy was a physician, a farmer, as independent as a man. But Edna. Edna was an artist’s model, a man’s woman.

Before he’d even met her, he’d painted her. She was the enchantress of his fever dreams, the mysterious figure—the Female—in the elemental forest of his best pictures. How could he not embrace her when he found her; absorb her; make her his?

Make her—Mrs. Owens.

A sham wife, for appearance’s sake.

Of course it was claptrap, the conventions of society, the rules of right behavior, the proscriptions of law. All meaningless, laughable—appalling. Nevertheless. It could be dangerous (a word Davies often used), dangerous and fatal (another favorite word of his) to reveal themselves as great instinctive souls.

Fatal? Edna would say (as she disrobed behind the changing screen; as she posed in a wraithlike veil; as she daubed her throat and cleavage with Daviess’ favorite scent (from Bergdorf-Goodman); as she turned to him in bed. Fatal?

To his career, he’d say. Fatal to his career. The ladies and gentlemen of means who bought his paintings were easily scandalized.

And possible, he’d say, even fatal in the uglier, literal sense.

Which always caused Edna to go pale, no matter how often she asked, and for a long while she kept asking, several times a month, as though she hoped that once, just once, Davies would say something different. But he never did.

Fatal in the uglier, literal sense. Possibly.

Surely she wouldn’t—

She might, Davies would say. If she found out about us, she just might. She already killed her first husband, why not her second? Or she might harm the boys, out of spite. She’s capable of it, believe me. I know the woman.

Speaking about Lucy; Doctor Davies.

Edna would laugh nervously, and fall silent.

Till the next time.

She killed her first husband?

Shot him, Davies would say. But her family was well-connected, even illustrious in the South (descended, he’d say, from Meriwether Lewis, the explorer) and so charges were never brought against Lucy. But she killed him, all right, he’d tell Edna. Shot him dead. (Davies always failed to mention, however, that Lucy’s first husband had been a violent, raging drunk, that he’d come after her with a loaded gun in a street in Huntsville, Alabama, that she’d struggled with him and that the gun had discharged into his stomach.) She’s an unforgiving, belligerent woman, Edna. She must never know about us. Our lives would be in jeopardy. And the lives of my sons, as well.

Davies, in fact, didn’t believe for one moment that Lucy would ever, under any circumstances, cause harm to Rab and Dave; this was an outrageous calumny, and he felt badly about it. Wicked. But it was made with the very best intentions. To simplify a tangled situation.

Pulling now on one end of his mustache, he stares across the room at Edna—perched on a stool, flipping through a copy of The Delineator, pausing to examine a dress pattern, then flipping quickly ahead. His gorgeous, full-blooded dryad has become a—a reader of Butterick magazines! Davies could weep, could gnash his teeth, could grab hold of her thick glossy hair and—

He rises from the sofa and goes once again to the steam pipe. The heat is finally coming up, he says vaguely. And she grunts, uninterested.

Edna! he wants to shout, get back to Arcadia! Now!

But it’s too late.

The secrecy has gone on for too long. Has soured everything. She’s grown tired of being Mrs. Owens, the unsociable housewife, to her neighbors uptown, and of being Miss Potter, the comely model, to Davies’ large and ever growing circle of painter friends. Tired of staying home while Davies takes himself off to exhibitions, to restaurants, to the theater. To California! She never goes to parties, can never entertain. Her life has turned so dismal. She wants to enjoy herself. Wants to dance again, professionally. Wants to paint pictures of her own.

Which Davies absolutely forbids her to do. Paint? Over his dead body! One artist in the household is quite enough.

The arguments have become more frequent, and lately are pursued at top voice.

Why can’t he take her to the National Arts Club? Because someone might talk if they were seen together socially—that’s why!

Jealous? Davies jealous of Edna’s atrocious watercolors? The accusation is so unjust, so ridiculous that it hardly deserves a response. Jealous.

Oh, she could eat all she pleased, could she? Get fat, even, if she wanted? Then perhaps it was necessary for Davies to remind her, again, of just whose money put food in her mouth.

And so on.

More and more often these days, after a particularly hurtful argument, Davies finds himself thinking back to his boyhood—ordinary and innocent, free of crises—in the textile city of Utica, upstate. He’ll remember swimming in the Oriskany creek, skating on the Mohawk River, sledding on the hills above Genesee Street. Camping and playing baseball, reading Edgar Allen Poe in the root cellar, drawing farm animals on picket fences with colored chalk….

He was strong and athletic, a regular feller, and clever with his hands—beginning when he was six or seven, he made all of his own toys; designing them, carving them, painting them. He was happy. For so very long, at least it felt long, he was happy.

The only blots were Sunday school and religious services. Christianity was dull and savorless, and seemed especially so to young Davies once he discovered classical mythology. God the Father couldn’t hold a candle to Zeus. No, sir! And Apollo could whip St. Paul with one hand tied behind his back. Ares make mincemeat, in two seconds flat, of the Venerable Bede. And what conniving goddess wasn’t infinitely more exciting than some pious martyred virgin of the Middle Ages? Naturally, he never said such things aloud, but he squirmed unceasingly in church and was as bored silly by discussions of Bible stories as he was by fractions and geometry. David and Goliath. The Sermon on the Mount. Mild stuff. But the abduction of Persephone, the intrigues of Phaedra! Could enflame his imagination.

In 1879, his family moved to Chicago, and Davies, who’d just turned 15, went to work as an office boy, filing correspondence and running errands. In the evenings, he took drawing instruction at the Academy of Design, a grim, dusty place full of antique casts and huge dark oil paintings; serious young men, and a few women, in white smocks. Davies was enjoined to draw accurately, and he did, but without distinction. Often, he went to the zoo and sketched lions.

Sometime during his first months in Chicago, he developed a cough; when it lingered, and turned wheezing, his mother grew terrified that her youngest son was tubercular, and so, in the summer of 1880, she packed him off to Colorado. Where he lived the outdoor life among cowboys in the land of the Blackfeet Indians. From there, he traveled to Mexico, and found work as a draftsman.

And lately it seems to Davies, the more he thinks about it, that his stay in Mexico marked the true end of his gay, irreproachable youth. Once he returned to the United States, there seemed always to be something…unhealthy about his situation, either a tedious job, or a cramped, cold apartment, money terrors, girl trouble. Remembered episodes, entire periods, of his maturity have a certain…bleakness about them. Even if the recollection is a pleasurable one—of a successful show of watercolors, or a well-paid illustration for St. Nicholas magazine that he was actually proud of—it somehow triggers…melancholy.

Lucy. Buying the farm. His first trip to Europe. Meeting Edna.

Watching his mistress page aggressively through The Delineator, Davies begins to tap one foot. Through the windows, the sky has turned dark gray. Snow is coming. My boys will probably be no better than I, thinks Davies, but what of it?

He decides to scrape his palette and go out. Take a walk to the printer’s, to see if the catalog proofs are ready. If they are, he’ll call on Sloan and they can look at them together.

Edna wants to know if he’s coming back here later, or if he intends to go straight home to the flat. He replies that he doesn’t know yet, meanwhile considering whether to kiss Edna or to appear truculent

He hesitates, with a hand on the doorknob.


While he’s standing at the door, indecisive, wearing his hat and coat and holding his samples case, there’s a loud knock, which startles him like a rifle shot. He steps away, and drops the case with a thud.

Mr. Hay? Mr. Kenneth Hay? This is the police, Mr. Hay. Please open the door. Mr. Hay?

He finally lets them in, but only when he realizes that his landlady is out there with a passkey. Two officers in helmets and blue coats, one of them bearing a warrant for his arrest. On the charge, sir, of alienation of affection.

Hay begins to shake, goes dizzy, and his head roars.

One of the officers catches him as he drops, then scolds him. Pull yourself together, man. Don’t fall apart.

But it was only a friendship, says Hay, and utters an exclamation of disgust and anger.

There’ll be good time for all that later on, says the other, more sympathetic officer.

Hay wants to take along his samples case, but the policemen insist that he leave it behind. His landlady gives him a quizzical, disappointed look, then turns away. There’s a little crowd outside. Hay recognizes a man he’s met several times at the barber shop. He has to steel himself, lest he blubber. Then he’s locked into the paddy wagon, where he becomes so agitated that he loses his breath and starts to gulp while pushing his fingers through his lank yellow hair.

There, there, says the sympathetic policeman. It’s not a capital crime.

But it’s ridiculous! says Hay at the station. A law against falling in love! How can there be a law against falling in love? She fell in love with me, I didn’t make her do it! I didn’t ask for it to happen! How do I get a lawyer? How much do they cost?


On her way home from the fish market, the young wife sees Mrs. Owens, half a block ahead, going into their flat-house. For a moment she thinks to hurry, to catch up—Why, Mrs. Owens, she could say, I’ve been meaning to invite you to stop downstairs, any time, and have a cup of coffee with me.

But for some reason she doesn’t move quickly; if anything, she slows her pace.

Because there’s something intimidating about Mrs. Owens, and something sad, and something vaguely dangerous.

Better not to come too close.

Continue to read CHAPTER FIFTEEN →