I watched the face of the man who could destroy me and, even then, I remember thinking what a fine composition this room made. The mighty bookcases indistinct in the darkness, the fire in the grate, illuminating the faces of the two men drinking but clearly having no care or regard for each other.
I have never been good enough for my father but I could always trust my younger sister to act as a bridge between him and me. It was to her that I could show my paintings, before my father destroyed them. When my father insisted that I go into the family business, that was when I knew I had to leave.
But at regular intervals I would row over the lake to see her when my father was away. When she told me he was making her marry his old business partner I wanted to go and confront him but I did not really have the courage and was too easily persuaded by my sweet sister not to do anything.
On the night of the wedding I stayed on the other side of the lake, looking at my old home lit up in festivity. As the music died I rowed over to where I knew my sister would be waiting.
That night we said our last farewells, for the next day she would be leaving for Copenhagen. I knew the composition we made was beautiful.
Angrily I threw myself into painting, feeding on my melancholy. I tried a palette of blacks and greys but could not cope with these. Instead I painted the summer fields of my childhood, all greens and yellows and a bright blue sky.
I despised my weakness. Even more so when I was taken up by the London art market, my bright daubs becoming popular with the bourgeoisie because enough influential critics liked them.
Moments when I felt satisfaction turned sour on me as soon as I remembered who I was. The only work I cared for and did not have to resist destroying (but that would be too similar to my father) was, untypically for me, a night study. In the green/grey of a full moon a large house, all its many windows illuminated, the light shining onto a lake. On the shore two figures, heads bowed in sadness.
On the money I received from its sale I decided to move to London, to be closer to my market. I found I worked well in the greyness of the big city but treasured the letters I received from my sister who, she assured me, had a tolerably happy life in Copenhagen.
Receiving each one would send me into a frenzy of creating, often four or five canvases, all referencing scenes from our childhood. I fear I was not a good respondent. My life did not interest me so much that I wanted to write about it. I had no premonition when that letter from my sister arrived.
With my usual impatience I ripped the envelope open but a chill went through me as I read these words: Dear Gaetan, I have not been completely honest with you. For weeks now our father has been suffering, so much so that his housekeeper summoned me to be by his side. I wanted to write to you but you know how stubborn he is and he forbade it. Yesterday his condition became worse. I know you are estranged but it would be good for both your souls to put differences aside now. Please come. Your loving Klara.
What had been expectation turned to shock, the paper dry and sere in my hand. I had to go for a walk. I pounded the grey streets but saw nothing, thinking only of each individual heartache my father had caused me. But also there were moments that forced themselves to the surface when he had been kind, helping me with my model yacht on our lake, cooling my forehead when I had a fever. I wanted to hate but I could not avoid pity.
It was easy to make excuses. I had a significant exhibition coming up the following week and I should supervise the hanging. It would surely only distress my father even more if I arrived, he was never a man who would tolerate his orders being disobeyed.
But I also thought of my sister, just to see her again when, for many years, I had hardened my heart in the acid of never seeing her. I found myself at a lake and that was bitter for me because lakes have always reminded me of my childhood. I dismissed the omen and returned to the house I now try to call home. There was work to do. Exhibitions get in the way of work but they are a necessary evil. They involve shaking hands with fools who have money and charlatans who think they know about art but they are the only chance I get to hear people say nice things about my paintings. To my face how can they say anything else?
I dreaded the arrival of another letter telling me my decision was now irrevocable or one of hurt at my intransigence. Instead, typically for Klara, I got words praising my father’s courage and extolling the beauty of our estate. My sister is cruel and knows exactly how to play me.
I set out for Harwich the following day. A night crossing. I stood on deck the whole journey, watching the black sea broken to grey by the bow of the ferry.
It did not seem right to be back. Sights I could remember, sights I had forgotten about, sights I had steeled myself to the fact I would never see again. The creak of the door as it was opened, the dimness of the hall, the smell of polish, my sister running down the stairs and embracing me. That most painful of emotions, hope.
My father’s room was even darker and smelled sharply of sickness and medicine. I regretted coming. In bed was the all too familiar ogre, but much shrunken. I was surprised by sorrow.
His eyes were closed and I would have remained silent but Klara went up to the other side of the bed and clutched his hand. “Father, Gaetan is here.”
My stomach clenched. I would have rather recovered from the journey before facing this. One eye opened. He looked at me calmly and I assumed he did not recognise me. But then he lifted his other hand like a reflex and I held it, equally a reflex. His hand tightened.
For a moment both his children stood over his bed, holding his hands. Klara continued to nurse our father but I could relieve her for spells that enabled her to get more rest, especially during the night watch because I have long been a creature who thrives in the quiet of the night.
My father was mostly comatose so I contented myself with pencil sketches of his now still features. Everything can provide inspiration. When not on duty I found a haven in his study, sitting behind his once hated desk, contemplating the now useless business papers he had accumulated in his lifetime.
After a few nights of this I was sketching as usual in his bedroom, appreciating the way the oil lamps illuminated his face when my father opened both his eyes and regarded me with a terrible stare.
“Gaetan!” he spoke in a croak that made the hairs at the back of my neck rise.
This time, though, he held out his hand again, as if pleading. “Gaetan, there is something I must tell you. Is your sister in the room?”
“Promise me.” Now his voice had that deep authority of old. Once more I was the five year old who had displeased him. I recoiled. Was he still trying to entrap me into the family business?
“Niels Kristiansen.” The name meant nothing to me. “Put it right.”
But his hand went limp and he was asleep again. Once relieved at my post I returned to the study and looked through my father’s papers, intrigued by the quest and surprising myself that I still had some filial duty, at least enough to consider my father’s plea.
But I had not found anything before there was a gentle tap on the door. My sister entered. From her tear stained face I knew that my father was dead. Tears came into my own eyes but if they were really for my father or for the wasted relationship that now could not be mended I could not say.
Briefly I thought of sketching my father’s corpse as it lay on the bed but it appeared sunken somehow and did not appeal to me.
Instead of just putting him in the ground we had to go through the torture of planning and then living through the funeral. Klara was close to collapse but still insisted on supervising the post-funeral catering. I was forced to talk to our ridiculous pastor, who wanted to pretend that father was the soul of Christian charity.
At last it was over and, while anyone who could claim any acquaintance with the man busily gobbled the cold meats in the dining room, I returned to the cold study, wanting to keep my mind occupied.
Late into the night I worked, ignoring two pleas from Klara to rest but I wanted this finished, going through these now superfluous papers that were so important to my father that he would rather be in here than play with us when we were children or mark our growing up.
At last I found it, buried under years of futility. Niels Kristiansen had been a foreman of my father’s right at the beginning of his career, when only a few men worked for him. He had been dismissed for dishonesty shortly before the business had really taken off and Klara’s husband had invested in the firm.
Why had my father been concerned with him on his death bed? Surely a man such as he would have worse things on his conscience?
I searched on a large folded piece of paper. Carefully unfolding it because age had made it almost transparent I found a diagram, not in my father’s hand. I was surprised to know what it meant, clearly my father’s attempts to teach me about his business had been more successful than I thought.
This was, though poorly sketched, was the production process that had given him a crucial advantage over his rivals. At the bottom of the paper a crude signature, Niels Kristiansen.
Dawn started to fill in the details of the room and dimmed my lamp while I sat contemplating what I had found. It had been proved, what I had somehow suspected all my life, that my father was a fraud, made rich by the intelligence of others, whom he had then betrayed. Part of my soul sang that I had been justified but I also sat at the desk in the sickly yellow light from the dying lamp, aware that my good fortune was based on the wrongful destruction of another. I resolved to find this Niels Kristiansen or his descendants and make good what I could.
After a short sleep plagued by unkempt men stalking me, I had luncheon with my sister. I told her nothing of my discovery. She seemed to see some improvement in my mood.
As quickly as I decently could I returned to the study to discover any more details of this unfortunate man. His last address had been in Thisted, in the north of Denmark. For a while I had a romantic notion of going there myself and personally restoring this man’s rightful place in the world and receive his gratitude but, as I thought through the tiresome reality, I decided that this was a task more efficiently carried out by our lawyer.
One thing we Danes do well is discrete but effective country lawyers. My father, naturally, had chosen a fine example of the breed. Hans Petersen was a large man with the angular, weather-beaten face of an old Viking who looked as if he had done his fair share of pillage, though he had done it with a pen rather than an axe.
Of course he was curious but, when it was clear I would not tell him why I was searching for this fellow, he did not press the point, merely mentioned that he had been to law school with someone who was now practising in the Thisted area and he would start making enquiries.
The worst thing was I found I could not paint while the search was going on, merely stalking about the lake, visiting again the spot where Klara and I had said goodbye, the places where we had played as children.
At first it looked as though the trail had gone long cold. My lawyer’s colleague had no knowledge of a family of Kristiansen. I felt bitter, more that my father’s crime would not be exposed than I had failed to carry out his dying wish.
But then there was more positive news. The Thisted lawyer had been talking to a policeman, I suppose it is an occupational failing, who knew a Niels Kristiansen as a petty criminal who had plagued the district for many years, apart from those times when he was incarcerated. Could this be the man I was looking for? It was too likely to be. My father’s injustice had driven him to this I was sure.
I sent word that I wished to see the fellow and would pay for his travel across the country. The message I received back was bowdlerized by two layers of lawyers but made it clear that he was not in the mood to see me, so I had to give a hint that it would be greatly to his advantage if he did so and would right an old wrong.
I could see that old Petersen was desperate to know my secret but his professional reticence remained in place.
This did the trick, the man set a date when he would arrive. Fortunately Klara had been forced by her domestic ties to return to Copenhagen on the date he was due to show himself.
All day I waited but Niels Kristiansen failed to appear. At least the money I had paid out for his journey had been some compensation to him. It was dark by the time a maid, with obvious distaste, informed me that there was a man who wished to see me and was surprised when I almost happily agreed.
She was no more surprised than I was, because a plan of mine had actually worked. My heart raced dangerously as I waited for him to appear.
It was a sad individual who shuffled through the door, in ragged suit and bent back. For a moment he stood on the threshold, looking at the room that he never expected to enter again then he smiled a toothless grin.
“Come in. Please take a seat.” He strode in and slumped on the chair in front of the desk and regarded me with a smirk. He saw me as a pampered fool and I had let him gain the initiative. “Your father is dead then?”
I nodded and, if there was not a thick carpet on the floor I am sure that he would have spat on the floor.
“I know my father committed a great wrong against you.”
“You do, do you?”
“And I intend to put things right.”
He stood up suddenly. “Get out of that chair then.”
“If you want to put things right you will give me this house and the means to live in it.”
“Your father stole from me.”
He slumped back in his chair and that same smirk, knowing he had frightened me. I had never seen such hate directed at my person, not even that of the stupidest critic.
“What do you know? I know about stealing, you can believe that. It is what your father drove me to. So if you are going to put things right then you will have to give me back the place in society your father took from me.”
“I am sure we can make some accommodation.”
“You’re just like your father. You think money can get you out of all problems. But I’m going to squeeze you. I will destroy you and your precious sister. The world will know what your family is.”
Now I saw what my father saw in this fellow. Nasty and squalid, with no right to be part of proper society.
“You will at least take a drink.” I said mildly. I poured him a schnapps which he drank in one go and then helped himself to another. I was struck by the way the lamplight played on his angular features, how his pale skin glistened with sweat.
After a few drinks he told me, in a rambling fashion, what had happened. How he, an uneducated man, had come up with a way to streamline the working of the factory but my father, who had originally supported him, began to be angered by his rough ways. He made no secret of the fact that he had indeed stolen the money he had been accused of but claimed it as his right. My father had used it as an excuse to get rid of him because his uncouth ways were upsetting potential investors.
“The bastard!” he concluded and let out a large and undisguised fart that in a short time had filled the room with the rancid stink of failure.
“So what do you want of me?” I asked, with the gentleness I had used throughout the meeting.
“This should be mine! All this should be mine!” He was crying now and that made it easy. He was not aware of me, an automaton getting up and taking up a position behind him. I fixed my eyes on one place at the back of his head and brought the heavy schnapps bottle hard down on it. I have not drunk since.
He was not dead, which was a shame but not a disaster. I opened the French windows and carried him out. He was not heavy and it was only a short distance to the boathouse. I had originally thought of weighing him down with some of the brass paperweights my father possessed and I thought hideous but there was a danger the maid would spot their disappearance and connect it with my midnight visitor.
As I hoped there was enough metal junk in the boathouse to fill his pockets, then a gentle row on the dark lake. The oars seemed to make a terribly loud noise but what sanity I had left told me no one would hear them, only some waterfowl, whose eldritch cries sent my heart racing but soon quietened. I had brought the unbroken schnapps bottle with me in case he woke up but he did not trouble me.
He made a very gentle splash. The surface of the lake was already calm by the time I looked at it. Not a trace. The schnapps, that transparent man-killer, went in after him. Returning to the study nothing seemed out of place so I went to bed and had a surprisingly refreshing night.
As I hoped the maid made no mention of the man, it was not her place, nor did my reticent solicitor, as I made preparations to return to my London life, ask if my quest had obtained a successful outcome.
I know now that I will never have the satisfaction of happiness but I played a good role of the light-hearted painter. I even became friendly with Klara’s husband. I could see in his twinkling eyes that he thought he was defrauding me when he bought my share of the business but what did I care? I was free as I could be and the money would go to Klara and her children.
I am known now for my night paintings, two in particular. One of two young people standing dejectedly by the side of a lake, the other of two men sitting in a book-lined study, one dressed in the best of fashion, the other a workman down on his luck. They are described as enigmatic and people repeatedly ask for their stories. I never tell them.