The Enigma of Fuji – a novel

An extract from my novel in progress.

*

Yokohama, April, 1894: Two Scottish artists, George Dalziel and Archibald Nith, have been in the foreigners’ settlement for eight months, funded by their patron, the Glasgow art dealer Alexander Reid. Their brief: to return with a bevy of work to match the taste for Japonisme that has migrated from Paris up to the salons of nouveau-riche Glasgow… 

*

Through a bamboo latticed window, you can see into a room where gas lamps burn brightly. There is a sofa against the back wall, upholstered in green leather, draped by a throw embroidered with pink chrysanthemums. On it, fast asleep and curled into a ball, is a white cat. In front of the cat, under the light of the lamps, are two men. One of them, the younger looking, is barefoot and wears loose white cotton trousers. The other, taller, losing his hair, is in black stockings and slippers, and his pantaloons are brown. Both of them wear white shirts with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows and the top two buttons undone. Both of them have easels in front of them, oil paints on folding tables at their sides, and brushes in their hands.

What are they painting? You move up behind them and see that they are working on top of sketches of Japanese geisha girls in traditional costume.

The older man, George Dalziel, works in magenta, methodically filling in the background on his girl’s kimono. Its bamboo patterns have already been drawn in; they’ll be dark green and he’ll do these later. But Dalziel likes backgrounding, and his brush moves with swift, sure strokes, hopping away from the canvas for a fresh load of paint before nuzzling back to its work.

Archibald Nith probably can’t help noticing this, just as Dalziel can’t help noticing that Nith’s brush has not touched his canvas for some time. It remains poised, a handspan away from the surface, a globule of paint perilously close to detaching itself and splashing down onto the sketch with ruinous effect. Dalziel has been surprised by Nith’s decision to begin his paintwork with the hair and facial features, using a colour closer to pure black than would seem advisable, but he said nothing. In fact Nith has been acting a little strangely of late, and Dalziel doesn’t want to provoke him. He has been careful to keep the talk while they paint of an inconsequential, non-artistic nature.

“I think I’m starting to work them out,” says Dalziel now, licking his lips as he traces round a particularly delicate leaf.

Either contemplating the bend of an eyebrow or lost in some revery, Nith says: “Who?”

“The Japanese, of course.” Dalziel purrs over his dipthongs, a cat at cream. “They’re like us. They’re torn. Part of them wants to keep what they have. This…” He nods down at his canvas. It may be supposed to represent the essence of Japan. “Peculiar, pristine little land…”

Suddenly the paintbrush Nith was holding is flying across the room like a fakir’s dagger. It whistles between Dalziel and his easel, clatters against the bamboo slats and falls to the floor.

First to react is the feline, who uncoils herself and springs off the sofa, haring for the gap in the doorway, which can’t possibly be wide enough but is.

“What in God’s name are you doing man?”
Dalziel’s flash of anger came from an instinctive fear for his work – he felt a spatter of paint on his face as the brush flew past. He’s worried the same fate will have befallen his geisha. Nith has already flown past him. In pursuit of the tool of his art, bounding across the tatami matting. Now he presses his face to the window, clutching at the slats like a prisoner the bars of his cage.
“I saw you!” he hollers out into the night.
Dalziel, relieved to find no damage, is at his side, gripping his arm.

“You saw who, Archie?”

“Someone was there.”
Dalziel peers out across the lawn. Moonlight glints off the surface of the pond. The only faintly human shape is the dwarf pine in the corner, its silvered trunk and branches pompomed with needles.

“Well, what did they look like?”
“I didn’t see a face.”

Considering possibilities, a host of hypothetical burglars slips into Dalziel’s mind. The thought of losing all their work is enough to make him feel a wave of panic. But, experienced rationalist that he is, he knows how to fight them off. He bends to retrieve Nith’s brush. It’s hardly likely that Nith really did see someone, he thinks. More so that it was hallucination. But if that, there is now definite cause for concern over his mental state. Rising again, Dalziel places an arm round his younger friend’s shoulder and squeezes it.

“Could it not, do you think, have been just an animal? Perhaps The neighbourhood Tom taking a fancy to our Suki?”

Nith turns to face him. His expression is singular. One might almost think it pity, which would be strange. What has Dalziel got to be pitied for? Not ‘seeing’ perhaps? That would be a solid mark into the column entitled: ‘Mental illness’.
But the look lasts only for a second, and Dalziel wonders afterward if he misread it. The old, dryly humorous Nith is back.
“And you would have Suki’s honour besmirched by a peeping Tom would you?”
“Thats the spirit! Fight ‘em off, I say. Not for all the tea in China.”
“I should think not when the Japanese could give you perfectly good tea of their own,” Nith starts to move back into the room. Dalziel follows.

“That green stuff, you mean? That’s not tea.” Nith is hovering over his canvas again. Dalziel is about to give him his brush back – then he thinks again. The painting is surely the source of all this. Dalziel has been in rough spots with work before, though mercifully not for some years. Best, he knows, to step away when things are going badly. “How about I make us a pot of the good old Ceylon?”

Oh, the power of a cup of tea! What restoration it provides in times of crisis. “You take Suki’s place down there”, he pats the sofa – “and I’ll set the kettle a-boil. Oh you’ll need this in case the suitor shows his face again.” Dalziel flourishes the paintbrush for Nith before he pushes back the sliding door and makes his exit from the room.

In the small kitchen, after splashing some milk into a saucer for Suki – she deigns to let him caress her silken head as she laps at it – he opens a cupboard and takes out a dark green tin. Setting it down on the table he unscrews the lid and sniffs. What bliss! Let others have their opium. The aroma of tea leaves is George Dalziel’s ambrosia. It transports him to his Indian childhood. Once more he is walking with his mother through the plantations past the jacarandas. If only you could paint a smell, Dalziel thinks wryly, as he spoons out leaves into the pot. The water will take a few minutes to boil and he debates whether to go back through, or to wait for it here. He decides to wait. He can hear snatches of Nith singing in the other room.
Green grow the rashes O
Green grow the rashes O

When Nith sings Burns it’s a sure sign his spirits have recovered. Sometimes a man just needs a little space to himself, Dalziel reasons. Or the company of a cat.

The singing has stopped by the time he has everything ready. He’s put it all on a tray, and to get through carrying it, he goes in backwards, using his rump to push the sliding door further back. He’s intending to set it down on the floor at the foot of the sofa, but when he turns, he almost drops the lot. Nith is over at the window once again, his back to Dalziel. But his position in the room is not the matter for alarm. The crisis is all on the canvas. Dalziel says nothing at first, not knowing what there is to say. He sets the teatray down carefully, and kneeling, pours out two cups. He uses his finger to stop the lid and wishes for a second that Nith could see the arc of brown liquid dancing from the spout and filling the cup. That would surely calm him, if he would only let it.

He adds the milk and takes the cups over to his friend, glancing down again at Nith’s canvas as he passes. He winces. It’s a sight that hits all painters hard: painstaking effort ruined by a fit of rage. The tea is offered but refused. Offered again and accepted, grudgingly, still without a word. The fatherly hand comes on the shoulder. “I should never have given you that brush back,” Dalziel says, and immediately regrets it. There is a time for joking but there is also a time, he knows, when seriousness is called for.
“The muse is a fickle creature,” he starts. He doesn’t know quite where this is going, only that words are better than silence. “One minute you have her riding steady by your side. The next – poof! – she’s done the old vanishing trick. She’s left you high and dry.” So far so good – he’s managed to steer Nith away from the window, which seems to have some malevolent hold over him, past the canvases – definitely no more of those – and down onto the sofa. That’s better. “So… what do you do now? Do you wait on her coming back? Or do you hunt her down like Actaeon, risking her wrath when you come upon her bathing naked in a glade?”
“That was Diana,” Nith mutters into his cup. He’s drinking at least. And talking. The elixir must be working.
“Still, a muse of sorts. And of course in this case, the chasing was ill advised. Given that he was turned into a stag and ripped limb from limb.”
“By his own dogs,” Nith sighs. Suddenly he turns on Dalziel, as if he means to do some ripping himself. “But what if I just can’t paint geishas any more? What if the sight of another damn’d fan or bonsai makes me want to vomit? What if – ” – he rises to his feet, opens his mouth to continue and then trails off.

George Dalziel, not a man of dramatic expression, is ill-equipped to deal with these outbursts in others. He finds that words fail him. Anything he could say would lack intensity. Just look at the tea pouring, he wants to say, but he knows that would sound absurd – might prompt questions over who was the one with doubtful sanity. There is also the problem, which he has only just realised, that their feelings about being in Japan seem to be more or less opposite. To Dalziel, the eight months they have been here already have flown by; the ten remaining seem hardly enough. His spirit is attuned to this land, he knows. Even before he came he had a Buddhist ability to absorb himself in the beauty of simplicity. Here, he has crystallised a previously unconscious belief: that the most familiar inanimate objects are intricate puzzles waiting to be solved, if one can just look long and hard enough at them. If only Archie would stay still, in one place, long enough to be properly examined.

“You’re homesick,” Dalziel comments, now seeing the real significance of Burns. The realisation that the problem is as simple as this comes as both a relief and an anticlimax. He can’t help but be disappointed in his friend. For an artist to have this chance, and not be able to grasp it – it’s… well it’s just a pity – that’s what. And he, Dalziel, is the one who left a wife and daughter at home. Nith is a single man, with no ties.

“I need to get out,” Nith says suddenly, looking across the room, back to the dreaded window. Dalziel misunderstands the sentence. “You’ve hardly been here half a year.” Nith laughs. “I don’t mean that… you’re right of course. It would be ludicrous to be homesick. Look at us – we’ve barely even left home today. I just mean I’m going out. For a walk.” He’s already sliding back the door in its frame and stepping through it backwards. Suki, who was coming in behind him, miaows and turns on her heel again.
“A walk? Then I’ll come with you! Just let me finish this,” –  Dalziel has just poured himself a second cup. But Nith puts up his hand.
“George, it’s fine. You stay here. Work. Read some Tennyson. Go to bed.”
“I’ve done enough for one night.”
“Please.”  His tone floors Dalziel, or at least keeps him stuck to the sofa. He’s not used to people pleading with him. Not a man given to violence or threats, he has rarely in his life been the object of pleading. He can remember being the pleader, begging his father or certain schoolmasters as they approached him to inflict physical punishment.
“I shall not stop you Archie.”
Nith gives a stiff bow. “Sumimasen”, he mumbles – the Japanese word for ‘excuse me’ or ‘sorry’. It’s one they constantly hear the Japanese using, and at home they like to mock this habit of excessive apology. “Domo arigatou for the tea by the way,” he adds. Then he turns and disappears into the hallway. Dalziel hears him retrieving his money pouch from the drawer in the hall table, putting on his shoes, then the door closing and the brass knocker – very much the Western type – rattling gently against the wood outside. On the Bluff the night is so quiet that you can hear even these tiny sounds. So unexpectedly being left home alone comes as a mild shock to Dalziel.
“You’re still here Suki?” he calls.
“Kya kyaaa” comes the infinitely reassuring answer. The feline, haughty as an Egyptian queen, struts back into the room and springs up onto the sofa. She arches back her head and lets Dalziel stoke her under the chin, purring contentedly, before settling down into the position she occupied before all this disturbance began. “Oh well, there’s nothing else to be done”, Dalziel says aloud. He downs the rest of his tea, takes his paintbrush out of its pot of water, and prepares to resume the background in his favourite magenta.

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