Painters in Winter: Chapter Nine

Arthur B. Davies

Arthur B. Davies

Carrying a small leather suitcase and a wooden paint box, Arthur Davies arrives at Grand Central Station and buys a return ticket to Congers, one hour’s distance from New York on the West Short Line. He examines his change carefully before leaving the counter, then weaves through the Friday-evening commuter crowd, grimacing as though he’s been stabbed. No, he does not wish to purchase a newspaper. Or candy. Or chewing gum. Or flowers. Now, please! Out of his way! Vendors. Henri and Sloan and that madman Luks might find them all picturesque, but not Davies. Not Arthur Bowen Davies.

The train leaves on schedule and follows a route north that runs parallel with the Hudson River. Davies sits alone studying his pinched expression in the dark coach window. Lighted houses flash by. The conductor—the same ruddy German that Davies sees almost every Friday, and then again on Sunday night—appears with his big hole-punch. They chat briefly, about the weather being so unnaturally fine, and about Davies’ cigar (yes, it’s Cuban), and then the conductor (who’s long since pegged Davies as a flinty man of commerce and a weekend painter) touches the brim of his cap and moves on—lurching—up the aisle.

Palisades, Sparkill, Nyack, Congers.

As the train pulls into the little station, a woman steps from the waiting room onto the platform. She’s dressed in a man’s plaid woolen jacket, and corduroy trousers jammed into mud boots. Spotting Davies on the footboard, she waves. He waves back. Moments later, after they’ve clutched and kissed one another indifferently on the cheek, he says, Happy new year, Momma. And she—already half-way down the platform—replies, The same to you, Mr. Davies. How was your week?

Husband and wife. Married fifteen years; sixteen come next summer. With two children, two boys, nearly grown. And she calls him Mr. Davies. Mr. Davies. But whose fault, he wonders, is that? Whose fault, Lucy? He sighs (he can see his frosty breath, it’s so much nippier up here than in the city) and follows her.

Lucy takes the buggy reins, of course, which is quite all right with Davies. In recent years, he’s become almost skittish around horses. Which is peculiar, since as a much younger man—an 18-year-old—he practically lived on horseback for three solid months, the summer he rode (a white mare, he’s always told his sons; but was it?) from Colorado to Mexico City….

The house and thirty-six-acre dairy farm—the Davies place—is east of the village (actually the hamlet) of Congers, and at the northern edge of Rockland Lake. The road out is stony and indirect, it winds around fields and through dark woods. A slouching barn in silhouette. A man’s voice, far off, calling to someone in—Polish? Davies sits hunched forward, his chesterfield coat fully buttoned, the velvet collar turned up. He’s wearing a cap now—he made the switch from derby to cap while still on the train. You don’t wear a derby outside the city. Outside the city you wear a cap.

Lucy asks about his painting.

Going well, he says. Going well.

And the exhibit in February?

Should be interesting, he says. Though he can’t—can’t really get all that excited about it. It’s…just another show. For some of the others in the group, of course, it’s more of a, of a. It’s more important for some of the others. Who don’t exhibit nearly as often as he does. And a few of them rarely sell. Mr. Sloan? he says. Has never sold. Not a single painting. But yes, he says, the exhibition should be…interesting. And how are the boys?

Well, says Lucy. The boys are well.

When Davies sees the house and barn come into view, he thinks, as he almost always does: Why? Why in heaven’s name did he ever buy a farm? He can hardly conceive of the young man who once thought he could milk cows and make cheese in the day and paint pictures in the evening, and live happily ever after. As Lucy swings the buggy into the barn, he shakes his head, remembering the day when he first laid eyes upon this—wretched place. A Sunday in 1891. A long ago April Sunday….

He and Lucy were in their middle twenties, young lovers engaged to be married. Purely for something to do on a pretty spring afternoon they’d taken a free train ride up the Hudson. The trip was sponsored by a real-estate developer, but neither Davies nor Lucy had the smallest interest in looking at the building lots; as soon as they’d reached Congers, they slipped away from the group, and set off by themselves into the countryside. Blue skies, high fluffy clouds, the temperature somewhere in the sixties. Perfect! For several hours they hiked, hand in hand, stopping once for refreshment nears the ruins of a stone house deep in the woods. Lucy had brought along a flask of tea, Davies a copy of Blake. He read aloud from Songs of Experience (Ah Sun-flower! weary of time, Who countest the steps of the Sun) and she smiled gorgeously.

After a while, they continued on, and finally climbed a hill. From the top, they could look across an astonishing checkerboard panorama, clear to the flashing river. Directly below was a two-story frame house. And a barn of red weatherboard, and various sheds. Over there, a meadow with cattle. Lucy was transfixed, trembling. And Davies suggested they make inquiries.

The property was for sale—of course! Of course it was. Because life was perfect, and love eternal….

Once Lucy has put the horse into a stall, she and Davies walk from the barn to the house. The boys—Rab is 15; Dave, 13—are waiting, silhouetted in the open doorway. They smile at their father, their weekend father, and shake hands with him, firmly, almost formally. These farm boys. Their hard bodies, their wind burned faces. His children. Who no longer kiss him.

There is a cold supper waiting. A platter of beef, a bowl of potato salad, dark mustard in a gray crock. Davies sits down at the table (everyone else has eaten already) and pours himself a glass of wine. He raises the glass in a toast. Happy new year, boys.

Happy new year, Father.

Davies begins to serve himself.

Lucy goes back outside (chores?), then returns five minutes later, hangs up her coat, and collapses in a chair by the window, her expression stony and cold. Davies remembers how she used to sit for hours in the evening at her desk, dipping a pen into a bottle of ink, then pausing, then writing. Then pausing. Writing. A novel. Another romance. She wrote several. While he painted. She has a trunk full of manuscripts, upstairs in the bedroom.

After he’s finished eating, Davies stands in front of the fire. Then puts on a log and rolls it with a poker. Sparks fly. Lucy glances up. Feels good to be home, he says. Just to say something.  Her expression doesn’t change.

There’s a knock at the front door. Rab answers. An Irishman in a short plaid jacket tramps in. Dr. Davies, ma’am? It’s her time—ma’am?

Lucy is already on her feet, she has her medical bag and is pulling her coat down from the hook. She follows the Irishman out without glancing back. Without a word. Dave shuts the door. It’s Mrs. Ahern, he says, and Davies nods. But he doesn’t know any Mrs. Ahern. He no longer knows anyone in these parts.

A few minutes later he carries his suitcase upstairs. He still sleeps with Lucy when he’s home; when he’s here. They share the same bed. He notices a book on the bureau and picks it up, just to see what she’s reading. But it’s only a medical book. The illustrations and photographs grotesque, stomach-turning.

Lucy was already established as a physician–working at the New York City Children’s Asylum–when Davies met her one summer day on an excursion boat to Coney Island. Both going to see the outdoor opera. They’ve always shared a passion for music, though that’s all they’ve ever shared, really. This phony life, this semi-life, this foolish marriage! Damnable torment. Every weekend!

If only she’d agreed to give up the farm and return to the city after he’d realized (and it hadn’t taken him long, less than a year) what a horrible, pathetic mistake he’d made. He must have been out of his mind! A gentleman farmer? Pure torture. A pastoral nightmare. His body ached constantly, his hands had thickened and turned clumsy, were sore, blistered, callused. Deformed! He was forever injuring himself. Twisting his ankle, falling off ladders, gashing his head open on a crossbeam. Lucy! I’ve cut myself! Is it deep? That stings! He was hopeless at making repairs, and grew to loathe the very sight of cattle–their foul odor, their stupidity! He was so weary by the end of the day, far too exhausted to paint. Even to read. How could he concentrate on Matthew Arnold, or understand The Golden Bough, when his eyelids felt heavy as sash weights? He had to get out of there and back to civilization.

But Lucy was happy in Congers, was perfectly content, and besides, she was needed. The Country Doctor.

In 1893, Davies rented a tiny studio above William Macbeth’s art gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York. At first, he’d spend two days there, five in Congers. Then it was three, and four. Then four, and three. Then five, and two. It just worked out that way! He needed to spend more and more time in the city–he was always making connections, meeting patrons and collectors, exhibiting his allegorical watercolors: “Wisdom,” “Instinct,” “Doubt.”

And Lucy seemed to understand. She did. Her husband was an artist; he needed certain…stimulations which neither country life nor she could provide. It was actually an ideal arrangement for them both. And it might have continued as such had it not been for Davies’ long trip to Holland and France in 1895.

Although he wrote to her every day, describing in minute detail his meals and places of lodging, his visits to the Rijks Museum and the Louvre, his soulful enthusiasms for the Vermeers and Botticellis, the Rembrandts, Leonardos, Millets and Hobbemas, and sending her kisses & kisses and hugs & hugs, Lucy felt…abandoned. How could he have done it, gone off and left her with two small children? That she couldn’t understand. Or truly forgive.

They should have divorced–she probably would’ve agreed to it, without fuss–but Davies never asked. Never even broached the subject. Could never make himself…say it. Cowardice? Guilt? Laziness? He doesn’t know. Wishes he did. But whatever the reason, it hardly matters now. Because it’s too late, far too late. He’s trapped.

Davies sits down on the soft bed, feeling dizzy, squeezing his face between his hands. Then, giving a sigh, he unbuckles the straps on his suitcase, removes two shirts and collars and a pair of black hosiery, and puts everything into a dresser drawer. At the bottom of the suitcase is his small leather-bound volume of Blake’s poetry. He takes it and goes back downstairs. The boys have already retired. Escaped? Retired. They do have to be up early for their chores.

He pulls Lucy’s chair closer to the fire, settles down, and moistens his paging finger. Lately, he’s been rereading The Book of Thel for the hundredth time. Plate 4, part 3…

O beauty of the vales of Har! we live not for ourselves;

Thou seest me the meanest thing, and so I am indeed.

My bosom of itself is cold, and of itself is dark.
Hours later, Lucy nudges him awake, and he follows her quietly upstairs to bed. Her hands smell of–strong soap. The sheets are cold. Good night, Mr. Davies. Good night, Mama.

In a dream, Davies sees a redwood tree, a towering California redwood. In the distance, a heavy opalescent mist, the sparkle of a cataract. He steps carefully–or rather, moves; he has the sense of himself floating–toward the water. Then he stops, in a place of perfect concealment. To watch several young women bathing in a turquoise lagoon. Each of them is slim and small-breasted, with long straight hair the rich color of mahogany. Beyond them, and mounted on a white horse, is a boy child. Who looks directly towards Davies, and discovers him through the heavy brush, and smiles….


In the morning Davis wakes with a start, alone in the bed. He dresses quickly, then goes to the window–an overcast day, the sun a pale smudge–and sees Dave at the barn, standing in the open great door, Rab nearby driving nails into a fence post. A goose waddles across the farmyard, and Davies remembers–how long ago!–when his boys were young and he tried to sketch them, but they kept flapping their arms and honking, pretending they were geese, and Davies told them sharply, Stand still! and finally they did, they stood there like statues.

Lucy is in the kitchen. Wearing a shapeless gray-wool sweater and black trousers. When he comes in, she bids him good morning, asks him how he slept, then sets to cracking eggs in a bowl, stirring them roughly with a fork, and then laying slabs of bacon in a black fry pan. There’s warm cornbread, she tells him. And for a fleeting moment Davies feels like a boarder. South of France. When he was in Europe for the second–or third–time. On a sketching trip, staying with a peasant family. He recalls the chunk-chunk-chunk of a woodcutting husband. The wife fixing him eggs. Brown eggs.

As he butters a piece of cornbread, Davies tells Lucy about one of his patrons, a typewriter manufacturer.  She listens–at least she appears to–then puts his plate down in front of him. And he asks if she’d care to take a walk with him. A little tramp–shall we? She asks when. He shrugs. Right now? No, she can’t. She has morning chores, then her rounds to make. Several patients to see. And Davies thinks to ask about the baby she delivered last night. It was healthy, says Lucy. It was a girl.

After breakfast, he puts on one of his old flannel shirts (Lucy has moved almost all of his clothing from the bedroom wardrobe to the window-seat in the parlor), then picks up his paint box and goes out to find Rab. In the barn. Sorry, Father, I’d like to come on a walk with you, but… He’s too busy. Davies gives a tiny shrug (if you can’t, you can’t) and, looking around, notices a pile of old roofing shingles. Does Rab need these? No. May he take a few? Sure–go ahead, Father. And so he does.

Dave hails him as he’s crossing the service court. Where’re you off to?

No place. Just thought I’d take a walk.

Dave is standing by the feeding pen with his arms folded. Want some company?

I’d like that, says Davies, closing his eyes for just a moment. You ready?

The boy nods, then wipes his hands on his corduroy trousers. He offers to carry the paint box. Instead, Davies gives him the shingles.

They head down toward the lake, taking their time, Dave talking about a blooded mare that belongs to a friend of his that’s a mighty fine animal, a beautiful animal. Davies says he’d like to see it, he’d like to see Dave riding it. He could make a sketch. Then Dave says, And hang it in a gallery? Then he says, Mother was telling us you’re going to have some pictures in a gallery next month. I’d like to come.

Davies tightens his lips. It’s not a very important show, he says. When there’s an important show, I’ll have you come down. I’ll have you all come down, he says.

And Dave nods.


Half an hour later, they’ve come to the lake, and Davies stands gazing pensively across the water, which is beginning to freeze. Then he sits abruptly on a fallen tree. Dave stands behind him, looking precisely where his father is looking. Seeing what his father sees. Then he watches his father prepare to paint. Squeezing dabs of color–green, brown, black, red, white–from silver tubes onto a small palette.

Selecting a brush.

Cleaning off a shingle with the right sleeve of his jacket.

The boy smiles affectionately as Davies begins to paint, glancing from the shingle to the heavily wooded far shore, then back to the shingle.

Dave does likewise, and–yes! There’s the shape of the bank. One stroke. And the trees. Seven thick lines. He starts to speak, but Davies glances up quickly, frowning. Dave forgot: he’s not to say anything when his father is working. He should’ve remembered. He’s been told often enough. Over the years.

Pushing his hands deep into his coat pockets, he wanders off, kicking through brown leaves. Then returns. And looks at his father’s oil sketch. Yes! There are those hemlocks, there’s that hill. His father has got it all right. Exactly right. It’s amazing. He, Dave, could never do that. His father has the talent, the gift. And he remembers when he was small and they used to throw a baseball back and forth, Dave to Father, Father to Rab. Only then it wasn’t Father, it was Papa. Papa had a good arm. To look at him you wouldn’t think so–he’s always looked like Ichabod Crane. But he could throw a baseball. He was a good ballplayer, Papa was.

Dave moves closer, trying to be very, very quiet, and takes yet another peek at the shingle. Then frowns. What? He looks across the lake, then right back. Where did all those–women come from? Why’d he put all of those women in the picture? They look pretty silly, Dave thinks–outside naked in the first week of January. He smiles, staring at the back of his father’s head, at his father’s thinning silver hair. Then he looks at his father’s hands, where all the talent is, and the skin is loose, the knuckles are big as almonds. Finally, Dave turns around and tramps back to the farm.

Father never notices.

Sunday evening. Lucy is getting ready to take Davies to the station at Congers. It’s just past five, already dark. There’s a light snow falling. Rab comes into the house carrying cord wood in his arms, and drops it into a bushel basket near the fireplace. Then drawing off his work gloves, he shakes hands with Davies. Have a good week, Father. See you next Friday.

Dave said good-bye earlier and went over to his friend’s house, to ride that blood mare.

Davies buttons up his coat, then smiles at Lucy, and together they trudge across the yard to the barn.

When they arrive at the station, there’s still half an hour before the train is due. Davies urges Lucy to go straight back home, it’s too cold to wait here with him, he’ll be fine. The snow might get heavier. Now, you mind what I say, Mammy.

Calling her by the pet name he hasn’t used since the boys were babies. Since his first letters home from Amsterdam. Dearest Mammy, Today has been so eventful, I scarcely know where to begin….

You mind what I say, Mammy.

Lucy shrugs. Suit yourself, Mr. Davies. She puts a hand on his shoulder, he bends, and they kiss. She walks off down the platform, stopping once to look back, raising her arm, then vanishing down the steps.

Davies goes inside the station, where there’s a small wood-burning stove. Two men in lumber jackets and leather caps are huddled around it. They nod amiably. One says, Pull up a chair. But Davies turns suddenly and goes back outside. The wind is blowing, the snow moving dizzily, the clouds are gray, the moon’s a sliver.

He paces up and down the platform, stamping his feet.

When the train finally howls in, ten minutes late, Davies eagerly boards. His bones feel stiff, his face is stinging, raw. The German conductor comes along. Well, he says, the weather has certainly changed.

Davies nods; it certainly has. Winter has finally set in.

He pulls down the window shade, hunches in his coat, and naps. There’s no snow in his dream. The lake is not frozen, the trees are not bare. A small naked boy is being carried by his mother, secure in her long white arms….

Grand Central! Grand Central is next! Grand Central!

Grabbing his suitcase from the luggage rack, Davies steps quickly down the aisle to the front of the car. He’s first out. It’s going on seven o’clock. On Vanderbilt Avenue he hails a cab. Steam blows down from the horse’s nostrils. The windows are glazed with ice. The streets are powdered.

Davies leans back and sighs.

In East Fifty-second Street he gets out and pays the cabman, then climbs the brownstone stoop of a red-brick apartment house, fetching out his key as he goes. Someone comes into the vestibule behind him. A heavyset woman, the superintendant’s wife. He steps aside and holds open the inside door for her. Why, thank you, Mr. Owens, she says.

You’re welcome, says Davies, and hurries upstairs.

Continue to read CHAPTER TEN →