Before La Circassia, a dark man came, another foreigner, Scottish, a silent man with a thick black moustache and iron-coloured hair trimmed close on the sides and back of his skull, en bross, like a Russian sailor. Any age from thirty to forty, he wore steel spectacles and an absurdly cheerful straw hat, and dressed in a dull black suit and vest, with round-toed boots, polished carefully. He was tall and boney and lean, with large hands, raw knuckles, long curving fingers and a longer, sharp face with a nose that had been broken and not properly set. His skin was pale except over the cheekbones, where it was ruddy with broken blood vessels; his cheeks were gray with beard, which he shaved himself, not frequently enough. His teeth were strong and crooked and yellow, and if he grinned, which he seldom did, he looked wolfish. When he didn’t grin, he might have been a Calvinist preacher or an undertaker or a lawyer’s agent. Anything but a soldier. We knew him as Mr. MacLeish.
In the warm months, after La Circassia came to us, Mr. MacLeish would sit in her doorway in the early morning sun in his braces and shirt sleeves, and read. On Monday mornings, using the window sill as a table, he cleaned the coarse black English revolver he wore under his jacket, or the smaller, uglier one he carried in his pocket. When I asked why two, he explained: one was always ready.
Mr. MacLeish was never far, standing at relaxed attention or sitting outside, upright in a hard chair with his feet and knees together, like a crow on the fence. He would rest those boney hands on his knees, or fold his arms, always with a cigarette in one hand, if not a book. In warm weather he wouldn’t wear his vest. In very hot weather, if he were alone, he would take off his jacket. In cold weather he added a sweater and a muffler and shed the straw hat in favour of a tweed cap he would pull from some pocket deep in his jacket. No matter what the weather, he never took off his pistols, and he was never inattentive. He smoked continuously, English cigarettes, lighting the next cigarette one-handed with the coal of the last, taking one after another from a constant supply of green and orange packets he fished from any pocket of his jacket. While he smoked he looked out from under his brows with pale grey eyes that had some trick of recognition in them, in constant, if silent conversation with the world around him. He was as plain and boney and precise as those pistols.
It was Mr. MacLeish who made the final conditions for the completion of the room. Besides painting the walls in a mixture of chalky whiting and rabbitskin glue that MacLeash called distemper, I lime-whitened the brick floor. Then he asked me to enamel the iron bed frame white, install two broad wood shelves along both side walls and paint them white, find a small table to use as a desk, a smaller table beside the bed, and a large table to put in the window, and paint all of them with white enamel too. He asked for electric lamps, one for the bedside, and one for the desk, and one to hang from the ceiling over the table in the window. And he asked for linen for a floor cloth and for the windows, which I was to obscure with water-paint.
He sent me into Avignon with money to furnish the bed with sheets and comforters, and he sent me around the asylum to find three light chairs for the room: one to stand beside the bed, one at the desk, and one at the table. And when I found them, he gave me instructions to clean them thoroughly. When I was done with all that, the room glowed in early morning, and was moody and gray by night. Only the black stove and stovepipe and the chairs made a mark on the space. For the rest, it was all textures and surfaces and soft light. It would be weeks before La Circassia came to the asylum to stay, but once her room was prepared, she was an invisible presence with us there.
When she arrived, riding in a cream-coloured Citroen sedan with a pale green top, in the company of Mr. Fitzgerald – a shorter, stouter, more amiable version of Mr. MacLeish – she came with bags and a trunk and cases and her portfolios, a household in all. She herself was unexpected, something of a shock for us. We expected an invalid, a helpless or at least a wounded woman. What we saw commanded attention but not concern, curiosity but not pity: she wore tinted spectacles that shaded her eyes but did not hide their remarkable gaze – a gaze that focused everywhere and nowhere – together with a carnival of a straw hat that shaded her face, and was, somehow, not one with her other garments, at odds with their simple dignity. In all else, she dressed in ivory white linen, and she glowed in the noontime sun.
But by then, the arrival was no more than another detail, the logical next step in a story that began in the spring, when I was summoned to an office. And for the first time, standing there in the distilled Provençal sun, sun that fell on us like a silver hammer, I saw the snake eagle circling idly, high in the sky overhead, watching for vipers.