Home -> Bookstore -> Painted Lives

Book Cover for Painted Lives Painted Lives
a novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen

Sarah came out to the verandah saying, "There's a call for you."

"Who is it?" Mattie asked irritably.

"She says her name's O'Connor."

Reluctant to take her eyes from the view, Mattie growled, "I don't know any O'Connors."

"She says she knows you."

Mattie lifted the receiver from the extension on the table beside the rocker. "What is it?" she barked into the mouthpiece.

"Mrs. Sylvester," began a young voice, "I'm Ellen O'Connor from the Boston Globe and I ..."

She didn't get to say anything more. With a look of disgust Mattie slammed down the receiver. "Jesus Christ, Sarah! Haven't I told you repeatedly to screen the calls! You keep letting these goddamned journalists sneak up on you."

Sarah stood calmly, accustomed now to the old woman's sudden explosive fits of temper, and simply listened.

"If you can't figure out how to keep those hounds away from me, I'll have to get rid of you. I can't have those people bothering me. How many times do I have to tell you?" she roared, her anger formidable and frightful.

"Sorry," Sarah said quietly. "She said she knew you."

"It's the oldest damned trick in the book. Haven't you figured that out yet?"

Sarah let her go on, having learned early on that when the old woman didn't get any kind of reaction, her anger fizzled out pretty quickly. Already Sarah could see Mattie's eyes starting to shift back the view.

"Tell Bonnie we'll have lunch late today. I want to walk."

With ever impressive energy, Mattie levered herself out of the rocker, picked up her sunhat and dark glasses, and made her way across the wide verandah to the steps leading down to the lawn. Sarah watched the tall, stately figure move across the grass, headed for the beach. Mattie was, she knew, going to spend an hour or more now immersing herself in the view that so held her attention hour after hour, every day of the week from early morning until after sunset. Even in bad weather the old woman sat in the rocker and gazed at the beach. They'd been on the island for seven weeks and the routine had been established the day after they'd arrived. And it didn't vary significantly from the routine Sarah had come to know during the winter at the Connecticut house. Another beach view, another verandah, another rocker. The only difference Sarah could discern between the winter and summer routines was the number of hours the old woman spent out-of-doors in each place. Sarah had started the job the previous February, after having endured one of the most bizarre interviews of her life.

First she'd been preinterviewed by the agency and then, after several telephone calls, Mattie had agreed to an evening meeting. The old woman had stood framed in the open front door as Sarah had pulled to the top of the circular driveway in the rental car, and the first words Mattie spoke were, "Good! At least you're punctual. Come inside."

She'd led Sarah into the immense living room where she'd seated herself in a wing chair, waving Sarah to the sofa opposite. It had taken every ounce of Sarah's self-control not to let her eyes go roving over the paintings that took up all the available wall space, or the silver-framed photographs grouped atop a fringed shawl on the grand piano. She'd seated herself on the sofa, then looked boldly into Mattie's large, very bright, blue eyes. Those eyes, Sarah had thought then and still did now, absorbed everything, missed nothing. Remarkable, famous eyes. They were exactly as they'd been in paintings done by Gideon Sylvester thirty and forty years ago: direct, daunting, tremendously intelligent; Mattie's eyes were the windows into which she defied people to dare look. It wasn't easy, Sarah had discovered at the outset. Mattie sensed a lie before it was spoken; she could see dishonesty forming in the distant recesses of someone's mind. You couldn't fool Mattie, and if you tried, her capacity for anger and that deep booming voice could scare the hell out of you. Until you got used to her and realized the anger was as much an art form to Mattie as her husband's work. Everything about the old woman was on a grand scale - her height, her eyes, her vocal range, her emotions.

"If you're some kind of writer thinking to get inside my home for the sake of a story," Mattie had said, "I'll know it soon enough. And I'll make you regret the day you ever imagined I'd be so simpleminded that I couldn't tell an honest-to-god secretary from someone with secret ambitions. If I wanted the world to know about my life with Gideon Sylvester, I'd have told about it long since. I plan to go to my grave being the only one who lived my life. Everybody else can go live their own lives. No one's going to get even the smallest vicarious thrill from any of my late husband's exploits. They'll have to make do with what's on the record." She delivered this speech like a set piece, but with galvanizing gusto.

Sarah had nodded, then waited.

"So what can you do?" Mattie had asked her. "And if you don't do it well, don't bother telling me about it. I loathe mediocrity."

"I can type seventy words a minute. I don't do shorthand, but the agency said you don't require that. I can file, and keep books. I can also cook, and even clean, if it comes to that."

Mattie had listened with her eyes slightly narrowed, taking stock. "You're young," she'd said accusingly. "You're looking for a husband."

Sarah had laughed. "I'm not that young. I'm forty-one. And I've had a husband, thank you very much."


"Yes, ma'am. It lasted about twenty minutes one Friday afternoon."

To Sarah's pleasure and relief, Mattie had laughed hugely, her eyes approving. Then she'd asked, "What else?"

Sarah had to take a moment to decide how best to reply. This wasn't a woman who'd tolerate answers designed to please her. She was after truth. "I need to be somewhere," Sarah had said finally. "I'm tired of working for men who aren't half as competent as I am but who make twice the money. And I'm tired of wondering what I'm going to be when I grow up." Mattie's eyebrows had lifted, and Sarah added, "I'd rather be useful to someone I respect than waste my time working to pay rent for rooms that'll never be mine."

At this point Mattie had removed a cigarette from a silver cup on the table at her side and proceeded to light it with a wooden kitchen match. She drew hard on the cigarette, then crossed her very long, still attractive legs, and stared through the smoke at Sarah.

Again Sarah had waited, aware of the absolute silence of the house, and of all those tempting paintings surrounding her. She'd expected less, of everything. She'd imagined the renowned Mathilda Sylvester would be less vital, less healthy, less alertly suspicious, and far less attractive. Her idea of a seventy-seven-year-old woman as someone ailing and frail couldn't have been farther off the mark. Mattie looked considerably younger and was anything but frail. Sarah thought that if she set her mind to it Mattie could probably lift a small truck. She exuded strength. She was slender; her hair was still abundant, although faded from its once vibrant red to a tame silvery gold, and she wore it haphazardly but most attractively in a topknot secured by several silver combs; her posture was exemplary. Sarah straightened, squaring her shoulders, her eyes remaining on those of her potential employer.

Mattie smoked her cigarette for a time then said abruptly, "Whatever goes on inside my home is strictly private, not for public consumption."

Sarah had nodded once more.

"I've had more young women traipsing through here than I can count. I'm tired of that." She'd extinguished her cigarette then looked at her hands as if for traces of ash. The diamond bracelet on her left wrist sent a number of tiny rainbows onto the walls, ceiling, and thickly carpeted floor. "Are you reliable?" she'd asked wearily, as if fatigued beyond measure by the onerous task of conversing with a stranger.

"Yes," Sarah had said simply.

"All right." Mattie had stood up from the chair and started toward the foyer. Sarah had no choice but to follow. "Bring your things tomorrow," she'd said, opening the front door. "There are three on staff: Bonnie, my cook, who's been with me twenty-seven years; Carl, my driver and handyman, who's been with me twenty-two years; and Gloria, my housekeeper, who's been with me eleven years. I doubt I'll live long enough to keep you employed for so long, but I'd like to think you'll want to stay until the end."

It was a chilling statement, but Mattie had allowed Sarah no time for a response. She'd extended her long cool hand, and Sarah had shaken hands with her, saying, "Thank you, Mrs. Sylvester. I'll do my best for you."

"Call me Mattie. And I'd prefer you did your best for yourself. I've found pleasing one's self usually results in pleasing others."

With that, Mattie had closed the door and Sarah had found herself staring at the heavy brass lion's head door knocker. Mattie, she'd discovered, didn't waste time on hellos and good-byes.

That had been just over six months ago, Sarah thought, watching Mattie make her stately progress along the beach, the breeze causing the gauzy fabric of her dress to flatten against her long body. Sarah told herself she was going to have to be more careful. That O'Connor woman was the third journalist who'd managed to talk her way past her, and it drove Mattie wild.

She returned indoors and went to the kitchen where Bonnie was seated on a high stool at the counter, placidly shelling peas into a white enamel colander.

"Mattie wants to have lunch late," Sarah told her, opening one of the cupboards for a mug, then moving to the coffee maker.

"What about you?" Bonnie asked. "You wanna wait and eat with her?"

"Uh huh," Sarah answered, getting the cream from the refrigerator. "I've got a few more letters to do."

"She down walking on the beach again?"

"Uh huh."-

Bonnie smiled down at her lapful of peapods and gave a shake of her head.

"What?" Sarah asked, leaning against the counter and taking a sip of the coffee. Bonnie made the best coffee, not to mention the finest food, Sarah had ever consumed.

"She's been tracking something on that beach for the last six years. I figure she's going back over the whole of her life, step for step. Been doing it since the Mister passed on. Same thing at the winter house. She sits out-of-doors, tracking it all, step for step."

"You know that for sure?"

Bonnie looked up and smiled. "What else d'you figure it'd be?" she asked reasonably. "Haven't you seen the way she can't hardly wait to get rid of folks so she can get back out there to her tracking?"

"What did she do before?"

"Ah." Bonnie sighed. "She never had a minute's time to sit still. He kept her going good," she said with some satisfaction. "He had her on the run from morning to night. I never saw two people keep each other so on the go like the two of them. And fight! God almighty! You wouldn't believe two old folks would have the energy for it, but they'd be at it night and day. God! Their fights! I sure do miss that man. There won't never be another one like Gideon Sylvester. And that's the truth."

"How did he die?" Sarah asked casually.

"Stroke." Bonnie set aside the colander, gathered her apron together over the spent pods, and went to dump them in the trash bin. Straightening, she stood with a hand on the counter.

"Right in the middle of a fight so bad we could hear them all the way in here."

"Where were they?"

"Down to the beach. Shouting away at each other like always, then there was this sudden quiet. And I thought, That's strange, so I went out the back door here, around to the front of the verandah, and after maybe five minutes she come running like hell back up the lawn. I knew just from the look of her. So, I rushed back in here and phoned Doctor Bob, told him to come quick. Only took him a few minutes. He was pulling into the driveway when she'd finally got her breath back. She grabbed hold of him by the arm and led him off back down to the beach. I just knew. You know? She wouldn't've left him down there if he wasn't dead. She'd've stayed there, breathing for him if she had to. So I knew."

"What d'you mean?"

"It's the way they were." Bonnie shrugged, as if what she was saying was clear as day and Sarah was being dense.

"I don't follow," Sarah said. "How were they?"

"Close," Bonnie said. "Two people living inside one head, kind of. All them arguments, all that fighting, that wasn't any kind of fighting like you and me might know about. It was more like one person thrashing out the pros and cons of a situation. You know? They didn't never really disagree, it seemed to me. They were just keeping the spark alive." With pride, as if she was privileged to be one of the few who knew, she said, "They were special. And the ordinary rules never did apply to the two of them." She gave Sarah a sudden smile and said, "I'll tell you a little something. It wasn't only fighting they were up to all the day and night."


"Uh-uh. They were at each other like newlyweds right to the last."

"You're joking!

Sobering, she said, "The missus wouldn't even sleep in that bed for six months after he passed on. I couldn't say for a fact she slept at all those six months. Then one night she just went back to her bed, and that was that." Bonnie looked at the clock on the stove and said, "You'd better get outta here now, do those letters you were talking about. She'll be back in half an hour, forty minutes, and she'll want her lunch."

"Thanks for telling me," Sarah said.

"How's that?"

"It helps," Sarah told her, then set her empty mug in the sink before heading off to the upstairs office at the front of the house.

Keeping an eye on the clock, she fitted on the earphones and started transcribing Mattie's dictation from the old Dictaphone. The machine was a relic, and the dictation sleeves were no longer even available. But Mattie had a big box filled with them, and had told Sarah, I ‘When we get to the end of these things, I'll buy a new system, one that takes cassettes. I don't see the point of throwing away something that still works perfectly well."

Sarah listened through the headphones. More declines to invitations; more refusals to galleries. No personal letters today. This was, without question, the least taxing job possible. Half a dozen letters on average daily; fielding telephone calls; paying bills and making bank deposits; writing the staff checks, including her own; and generally keeping herself available should Mattie want her for some reason.

So far, aside from expecting Sarah's company at meals, Mattie had made few demands. She'd also said very little. When they sat together in the dining room three times a day, Mattie scarcely spoke. Occasionally, she'd comment on Bonnie's culinary offerings, or on the weather. For the most part, though, the old woman seemed as distant and distracted as she did during those hours she spent scanning the shoreline. Sarah wondered if it was always going to be this way. And if it was, would she be able to endure the boredom? She'd imagined Mattie would converse with her, even if on inconsequential matters. Sarah did talk to Bonnie fairly regularly, and apparently to Gloria, too. Carl was a huge taciturn man in his mid to late forties who apparently never spoke to anyone. He was always busy mending something in or around the house, or leaning beneath the upraised hood of the ancient Lincoln town car, doing this or that to the engine. Whatever it was he did, he kept the car in perfect running order. Black and dignified, like an elderly family retainer well past his prime, it stood ever at the ready should Mattie decide to go somewhere. Since Sarah had been in her employ, Mattie had gone out only two or three times, and then it had been on some undivulged errands.

She'd imagined glamour. It had always seemed to her an integral part of the lives of the famous. There was unquestionably glamour in the trappings of Mathilda Sylvester's life, but none elsewhere. The woman ate, slept, and gazed into space. It seemed to be the sum total of her existence. Sad and a little dreary and not in the least enviable. It was hardly an appropriate life-style for the widow of one of America's greatest painters. Or was it?

Sarah was awakened by a tapping at her door, followed by the unmistakable sound of the doorknob turning. When she opened her eyes it was to see Mattie, spectrally lit from the rear by the landing light, approaching the bed.

"I'm sorry to wake you," Mattie said in what, for her, was a whisper. "I wondered if you'd mind sitting with me for a bit."

"Is something wrong?" Sarah sat up reaching for her robe.

"Not a thing," Mattie said, already on her way to the door, confident Sarah would follow.

The door to the master suite was open and Sarah stepped inside. Mattie was outside on the balcony. Sarah went to sit in the companion chair, taking stock to assure herself there really wasn't anything wrong. Mattie had a cigarette lit and was smoking methodically.

"Would you like me to get you something?" Sarah asked, her eyes drawn to the vast star-speckled underside of the black umbrella she thought of as night.


"It's a lovely night," Sarah observed.

"There was a splendid lightning show an hour or so ago. I thought it might rain, but it was only heat lightning."

"Have you been out here long?"

"A while," Mattie answered. "Some nights I don't sleep. And God knows I don't sleep anywhere near as much as I did when I was young. Don't need it, I suppose." Her shoulders rose then fell. She took another draw on her cigarette, then with an elegantly lazy gesture brushed stray ashes from the lap of her long nightgown. "I'm still not used to the nights," she said, her voice lighter and almost youthfully regretful.

"Do you miss him?" Sarah risked asking.

"In a sense."

"It must be hard, after so long with someone you love."

"Love?" Mattie's voice hardened. "You've been gossiping with Bonnie," she declared knowingly.

"We've talked," Sarah conceded. "Nothing like gossip."

"Love," Mattie repeated scornfully. "Gideon had that woman utterly bamboozled."

"You didn't love him?"

"Mattie gave a low bitter laugh. "I despised him," she said forcefully. "I don't miss that bastard. I miss the battle. I intended to win, you know." She looked over at Sarah. "I had every intention of winning, but the goddamned son of a bitch dropped dead on me."

"But ..."

"But what?" Mattie snapped. "Oh?" she said, as if able to read the lines and shadows on Sarah's face. "Bonnie also told you about the bed linens?" She smiled and looked up at the sky. "All part of the fifty-year battle. I had my weapons, he had his. Mine were talent and intelligence. His was sexual skill. Are you shocked?" she asked, looking hopeful.

"A little," Sarah said truthfully.

"Why, because it's nothing like the magazine pieces?"

"Partly. And partly, I guess, because I can't understand why anyone would spend fifty years with someone she hated."

"Oh, my dear." Mattie smiled, showing still-strong teeth. "You never met Gideon Sylvester. He'd have charmed you out of your underwear in no time flat. God knows, he did it to me often enough."

"You sound as though you enjoyed it."

"Enjoy isn't quite the word. There was a time when I relished it, savored it. Whatever." She gave a long sigh, realized her cigarette had burned down to the filter and dropped it into the ashtray, at once reaching for another. "You appear trustworthy, Sarah. You've lasted longer than most of the others." As she struck one of the kitchen matches on the underside of the table, then held it to her cigarette, her face was grotesquely illuminated. "Repeat a word of this to anyone," she said, "and I'll make sure the remainder of your life is a complete misery."

"Don't threaten me," Sarah said unemotionally. "In the first place, there's no one for me to tell. And in the second place, who'd believe me?"

Mattie stared at her for a long moment, then laughed. "I'm beginning to like you very much, Sarah Kidd. You don't take any crap, not from anyone."

"That's right. I don't."

"Good," Mattie said with satisfaction. "Good. Because I'm starting to feel like talking again."

It was about time, Sarah thought. What was it Bonnie had said? That was it. It had been six months after Gideon Sylvester's death that Mattie had gone back to sleeping in the master bedroom. It was now six months since Sarah had come to work for her. Was it significant? she wondered.

"I was also thinking," Mattie said, "about starting to paint again."

"You paint?"

"Of course, I do!" Mattie spat.

"I didn't know that," Sarah said rather dumbly.

"Naturally not. There are only a handful of people alive who know."

Unable to stop herself, Sarah yawned. Mattie saw and said, "Go to bed. You're tired." Then, her voice softening, she said, "Thank you for your company."

It was the first time Mattie had thanked her for anything. Moved, Sarah said, "I like being with you."

Mattie didn't choose to respond.

Sarah got up, said, "Good night, Mattie," and went back to her room.

"Yes," Mattie said absently, some moments after Sarah had gone.

Order Painted Lives