The Witch of Painted Sorrows
I did not cause the madness, the deaths, or the rest of the tragedies any more than I painted the paintings. I had help, her help. Or perhaps I should say she forced her help on me. And so this story—which began with me fleeing my home in order to escape my husband and might very well end tomorrow, in a duel, in the Bois de Boulogne at dawn—is as much hers as mine. Or in fact more hers than mine. For she is the fountainhead. The fascination. She is La Lune. Woman of moon dreams, of legends and of nightmares. Who took me from the light and into the darkness. Who imprisoned me and set me free.
Or is it the other way around?
“Your questions,” my father always said to me, “will be your saving grace. A curious mind is the most important attribute any man or woman can possess. Now if you can just temper your impulsiveness . . .”
If I had a curious mind, I’d inherited it from him. And he’d nurtured it. Philippe Salome was on the board of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and helped found the American Museum of Natural History, whose cornerstone was laid on my fifth birthday.
I remember sitting atop my father’s shoulders that day, watching the groundbreaking ceremony and thinking the whole celebration was for me. He called it “our museum,” didn’t he? And for much of my life I thought it actually did belong to us, along with our mansion on Fifth Avenue and our summerhouse in Newport. Until it was gone, I understood so little about wealth and the price you pay for it. But isn’t that always the way?
Our museum’s vast halls and endless exhibit rooms fascinated me as much as they did my father—which pleased him, I could tell. We’d meander through exhibits, my small hand in his large one, and he’d keep me spellbound with stories about items on display. I’d ask for more, always just one more, and he’d laugh and tease: “My Sandrine, does your capacity for stories know no bounds?”
But it pleased him, and he’d always tell me another.
I especially loved the stories he told me about the gems and fate and destiny always ending them by saying: “You will make your own fate, Sandrine, I’m sure of it.”
Was my father right? Do we make our own destiny? I think back now to the stepping-stones that I’ve walked to reach this moment in time.
Were the incidents of my making? Or were they my fate?
The most difficult steps I took were after certain people died. No deaths were caused by me, but at the same time, none would have occurred were it not for me.
So many deaths. The first was on the morning of my fifteenth birthday, when I saw a boy beaten and tragically die because of our harmless kisses. The next was the night almost ten years later, when I heard the prelude to my father’s death and learned the truth about Benjamin, my husband. And then there were more. Each was an end-ing that, ironically, became a new beginning for me.
The one thing I am now sure of is that if there is such a thing as destiny, it is a result of our passion, be that for money, power, or love. Passion, for better or worse. It can keep a soul alive even if all that
survives is a shimmering. I’ve even seen it. I’ve been bathed in it. I’ve been changed by it.
Four months ago I snuck into Paris on a wet, chilly January night like a criminal, hiding my face in my shawl, taking extra care to be sure I wasn’t followed.
I stood on the stoop of my grandmother’s house and lifted the hand-shaped bronze door knocker and let it drop. The sound of the metal echoed inside. Her home was on a lane blocked off from rue des Saints-Pères by wide wooden double doors. Maison de la Lune, as it was called, was one of a half dozen four-story mid-eighteenth-century stone houses that shared a courtyard that backed up onto rue du Dragon. Hidden clusters like this were a common configuration in Paris. These small enclaves offered privacy and quiet from the busy city. Usually the porte cochère was locked and one had to ring for the concierge, but I’d found the heavy doors ajar and hadn’t had to wait for service.
I let the door knocker fall again. Light from a street lamp glinted off the golden metal. It was a strange object. Usually on these things the bronze hand’s palm faced the door. But this one was palm out, almost warning the visitor to reconsider requesting entrance.
I was anxious and impatient. I’d been cautious on my journey from New York to Southampton and kept to my cabin. I’d left a letter telling Benjamin I’d gone to visit friends in Virginia and assumed that once he returned and read it, it would be at least a week before he’d realize all was not what it seemed. One thing I had known for certain—he would never look for me in France. It would be inconceivable to Benjamin that any wife of his could cross the ocean alone.
Or so I assured myself until my husband’s banking associate, William Lenox, spotted me on board. When he expressed surprise I was traveling by myself, I concocted a story but was worried he didn’t believe me. My only consolation was that we had docked in England
and I had since crossed the channel into France. So even if Benjamin did come looking, he wouldn’t know where I’d gone.
That very first night in Paris, as I waited for my grandmother’s maid to open the door, I knew I had to stop thinking of what I had run away from. So I re-focused on the house I stood before and as I did, felt an overwhelming sense of belonging, of being welcome. Here I would be safe.
Once again I lifted the door knocker that had so obsessed me ten years before when I’d visited as a fifteen-year-old. The engravings on the finely modeled female palm included etched stars, phases of the moon, planets, and other archaic symbols. When I’d asked about it once, my grandmother had said it was older than the house, but she didn’t know how old exactly or what the ciphers meant.
After standing at the door for a few moments without gaining entry, I lifted the hand and let it drop again. Where was the maid? Grand-mère, one of Paris’s celebrated courtesans, hosted lavish salons on Tuesday, Thursday, and many Saturday evenings, and at this time of day was usually upstairs, preparing her toilette: dusting poudre de riz on her face and décolletage, screwing in her opale de feu earrings, and wrapping her signature rope of the same blazing orange stones around her neck. The strand of opal beads was famous. It had belonged to a Russian empress and was known as Les Incendies. The stones were the same color as my grandmother’s hair and the highlights in her topaz eyes. She was known by that name—L’Incendie, they called her, The Fire.
We had the same color eyes, but mine almost never flashed like hers. When I was growing up, I kept checking in the mirror, hoping the opal sparks that I only saw occasionally would intensify. I wanted to be just like her, but my father said it was just as well my eyes weren’t on fire because it wasn’t only her coloring that had inspired her name but also her temper, and that wasn’t a thing to covet.
It wasn’t until I was fifteen years old and witnessed it myself that I understood what he’d meant.
I let the hand of fate fall again. Even if Grand-mère was upstairs and couldn’t hear the knocking, the maid would be downstairs, organizing the refreshments for the evening. I’d seen her so many nights, polishing away last smudges on the silver, holding the Baccarat glasses over a pot of steaming water and then wiping them clean to make sure they gleamed.
Certainly Bernadette, if it was still Bernadette, should have heard the knocker, but I had been waiting more than five minutes, and no one had arrived to let me in. Dusk had descended. The air had grown cold, and now it was beginning to rain. Fat, heavy drops dripped onto my hat and into my eyes. And I had no umbrella. That’s when I did what I should have done from the start—I stepped back and looked up at the house.
The darkened windows set into the limestone facade indicated there were no fires burning and no lamps lit inside. My grandmother was not in residence. And neither, it appeared, was her staff. I almost wished the concierge had needed to open the porte cochère for me; he might have been able to tell me where my grandmother was.
For days now I had managed to keep my sanity only by thinking of this moment. All I had to do, I kept telling myself, was find my way here, and then together, my grandmother and I could mourn my father and her son, and she would help me figure out what I should do now that I had run away from New York City.
If she wasn’t here, where was I to go? I had other family in Paris, but I had no idea where they lived. I’d only met them here, at my grandmother’s house, when I’d visited ten years previously. I had no friends in the city.
The rain was soaking through my clothes. I needed to find shelter. But where? A restaurant or café? Was there one nearby? Or should I try and find a hotel? Which way should I go to get a carriage? Was it even safe to walk alone here at night?
What choice did I have?
Picking up my suitcase, I turned, but before I could even step into
the courtyard, I saw an advancing figure. A bedraggled-looking man wearing torn and filthy brown pants and an overcoat that had huge, bulging pockets, staggered toward me. Every step he took rang out on the stones.
He’s just a beggar who intends no harm, I told myself. He’s just looking for scraps of food, for a treasure in the garbage he’d be able to sell.
But what if I was wrong? Alone with him in the darkening courtyard, where could I go? In my skirt and heeled boots, could I even outrun him?
He was so close now I could see the grime on his face and hands. Smell his putrid odor. From the way he was eyeing me and my luggage, there was no doubt he was planning something. If he tried to grab my suitcase, I couldn’t fight him off. At least a foot taller than me, he was also broad-shouldered and thickset. It was my fault—I hadn’t stopped to ensure the porte cochère was locked behind me.
I fumbled in my bag for my keys. Little did it matter they were to our Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City. The familiar feel of them brought on a wave of sadness, but I fought it off. My immediate situation required acting quickly.
Jangling the keys, I pretended to use them, all the while feeling his eyes on my back.
Holding my breath, I waited to hear his retreating footsteps. But there was no such sound.
So I called out, as if to my grandmother’s maid, that it was all right, I would get the door myself.
I knew the beggar understood me. Even though I’d grown up in America, my father had taught me to speak French with an accent as good as any local’s.
When I still didn’t hear the stranger’s retreating footsteps, I called again to Bernadette that she should tell my husband or the houseman to come down, that the lock was stuck and I needed help with the suitcase.
Finally, from behind, I heard a sound. At last. The tramp was leaving. But no! I was wrong. He was laughing. And coming closer.
“There’s no one home,” he called out.
With my hand still on the doorknob, I half turned. “Get away from here before you get in trouble.”
“Everyone who lives here has been gone for over a week.”
“You’re wrong. They are all home. Someone is coming now, so you should leave while you can.”
The beggar laughed again. “Moved out. Saw them myself. The fancy madame and her maid and her manservant. Valises and boxes galore.”
“You are mistaken. They are all here upstairs, and my husband—”
“You may have a husband. And he very well might have been here . . . so very many women’s husbands come here . . . but if yours was here, he’s long gone.”
He took another step and reached out for my suitcase. At the same time leering at me with an expression that suggested he might decide to take more than my luggage.
I was frozen, unable to move, to run, to scream, or to make any effort at all to help myself. My shoulder pushed against the door as I twisted the doorknob, willing it to somehow magically open and give me entry. I might as well have been standing in front of a stone fortress. I was trapped. Powerless again.
And then something changed. I felt a surge of anger. A refusal to accept what seemed so inevitable.
“Get away from me,” I shouted as if my words were a weapon.
The vagabond laughed at me, knowing better.
Indeed, nothing should have suggested that my words were a force to be reckoned with except my sense that they were. I let go of the doorknob, shouted at him again to leave, and when he didn’t, outrage and anger and frustration all mixed together, and from a place that I didn’t know I possessed, determination and fearlessness rose up. I pushed the man away from me.
“No!” I shouted. And again, “No!” in a voice that was unrecognizable to me.
Something inside me refused to accept what was happening.
The surprise attack sent the stranger sprawling, and he slid down the steps into the gutter. I hadn’t known he was carrying a knife until I saw it fall from his hand onto the cobblestones. It lay there next to him, glinting in the street lamp’s light. Rushing, I grabbed it just before he did.
And then I felt the man’s fingers wrap around my ankle and grip it tightly.
I kicked free. And then kicked again, the toe of my boot making contact with his nose, or his chin or his cheek—I couldn’t see, but I heard a sickening crack.
He let out a primitive howl far louder than my own shouts. Blood began to trickle from his nose. He writhed in pain.
Who was I? I did not know the woman capable of this. What were the limits of her abilities? I only knew that she was fighting for her life, and that unlike me she thought her life was worth fighting for.
“You whore,” the man bellowed as he began to rise up. He was looking at me so differently now. Before he’d appraised me as if I were a prize waiting to be claimed. Now I deserved punishing. It was there in his expression of fear mixed with hatred.
“Give me back my knife!”
“Don’t come any closer to me or I’ll use it,” I shouted back. My father had taught me how to use a pistol, but for me a knife had no use other than cutting the chicken or beef on my plate.
But I sensed this new woman I’d become knew how to wield one.
Suddenly the door of the mansion next to my grandmother’s was flung open, and a man rushed out, yelling as he ran down his steps. He brandished a pistol.
“Who is there? What is going on?”
The would-be thief cast one glance toward the newcomer and his
weapon and took off. In seconds all that remained of him was an echo of his wooden shoes clattering as he ran away.
The knife fell from my hand with a clang as the energy drained out of my body, and I sank to my knees.
“Are you hurt?” the man asked in an impossibly familiar voice.
Slowly, I lifted my head and looked at him. It had been ten years since I’d been in Paris, but my grandmother’s next-door neighbor had hardly changed. If there was more gray in his hair, I couldn’t see it in the dim light.
“Mais oui,” he said, surprised and confused as to how I might know him.
In those same ten years, I had changed. Grown from a hopeful young girl of fifteen to an aggrieved twenty-five-year-old woman.
“Sandrine! Oh my. Are you hurt?”
“My foot. My ankle is twisted, that’s all . . . but I . . . I . . .”
“You are in shock. Come, let me help you inside. My wife will get you some dry clothes. We’ll take a look at your foot.”
I looked down, almost surprised to see my dress and shawl were completely soaked through.
“But my grandmother, where is she?”
“Come inside first. You need dry clothes and a glass of wine. I will explain.”
He put his arm around me and started to walk me away from my grandmother’s house toward his own.
“My luggage,” I said.
“I’ll come right back and get it,” he said. “That man is gone. It’s safe for a few moments. This normally never happens. The porte cochère is kept locked when the concierge goes out. That fool must be drunk again.”
We walked down the few steps from one front door and up the few steps to the other. All the buildings here had been built at the same time, and had similar layouts inside. But whereas the vestibule in my grandmother’s house was ornate and lavish, the inside of the professor’s house was elegant and subdued. I had been here before, all those years ago, and like the owner, it did not seem to have changed.
He sat me in a velvet, deep-cushioned chair in the parlor despite my dripping clothes and called up to his wife, who, hearing the racket, was already halfway down the stairs.
Madame Ferre was dressed in a camel silk afternoon dress with cream lace at the throat and wrists, and her once glorious chestnut hair was shot through with gray. But she was still lovely, with warm brown eyes that my grandmother said showed how guileless she was.
“You can always tell how wicked a woman’s life has been by the light in her eyes, Sandrine,” she used to tell me, and then she’d look into my eyes and say: “I see good, only good, in your honeyed eyes, mon ange. Stay like that, Sandrine. Don’t become like me. Don’t light any fires . . . Too easily the flames leap out to lick and burn you.” And then she’d smile in that coy way she had and kiss me lightly on my forehead as if blessing me.
But I never quite believed her because, as much as she admired women like Madame Ferre and my mother, I knew Grand-mère regarded their lives as boring.
“What is all the racket about, Louis? I didn’t know you—” And then, seeing me, Madame Ferre stopped talking.
“It’s Eva’s granddaughter, Sandrine,” the professor told his wife.
“Of course it is,” she said as she took me in her arms and began to fuss over me, pulling the sodden shawl off my shoulders and brushing my wet hair off my face. “You poor child, soaked to the bone. What on earth happened?”
Her kindness, the warmth of their home with the flickering fire in the hearth, and all of its familiarity brought me close to tears, but I held back. It would not do to cry in front of these two people.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Henri must be at the café again,” the professor said. “We need to do something about him. He left the porte cochère open, and that beggar who has been hanging around all week came after her. I need to go get her luggage before some other malcontent makes off with it.”
“What did he do to you, dear?” Madame Ferre asked in a low voice once her husband had left the room.
“He only grabbed my foot. I twisted my ankle getting loose.” I was still shivering, half from cold, half from shock. How had I been able to fight that man off? I’d never done anything like that before.
“You are freezing and can catch your death this way,” Madame Ferre said as she helped me to my feet. “You need a warm bath and dry clothes.”
My ankle gave way under me, but she had me by the elbow and kept me standing upright. “Can you hobble upstairs with me? How bad is the pain?”
I tested it. “As long as I’m careful, it’s all right,” I said. I wanted the bath she was offering more than I cared about the twinges.
I allowed myself to be escorted up the staircase and into the bathroom, where I sat and watched as Madame Ferre drew a bath for me, loaded it with salts, and then helped me out of my clothes.
While I soaked, she left to get me some of her things to wear, and when she came back ten minutes later, her arms full of clothes, I realized I’d fallen asleep in the warm water, which was now growing chilly.
Madame Ferre opened a large bathsheet and held it up as I stepped out of the tub. Then, wrapping me in the towel’s softness, she proceeded to rub me dry.
Her motherly kindness was very welcome but also awkward to accept.
The Ferres had three sons and a daughter. When I was fifteen, my parents took me on a tour of the continent and, when they went off to Russia, where my father had business, left me to stay in Paris with
my grandmother. During that spring I met all the Ferre children. Their youngest son, Leon, was eighteen and a sculpture student at the École des Beaux-Arts. We became fast friends.
Many afternoons, Leon and I would go to the Louvre, where, as part of his schoolwork, he was modeling a copy of a sculpture by Canova of Cupid reviving Psyche, who lay unconscious on rocks. The artist had captured the moment just before the winged god kissed Psyche awake.
The eroticism in the marble masterpiece fueled the growing attraction between us. For hours at a time I would sit and watch Leon model, awed by his talent, stirred by— What was it?
What is it ever that ignites that first spark? All I knew was that I was sure there would never be anyone like him in my life again, and I wanted to soak up every minute with him that I could.
Sometimes I’d imagine feigning a faint so that Leon would stop his work . . . come to me . . . bend over me and touch me with his lips, reviving me the way Cupid was reviving Psyche. Oh, how I fantasized about his kisses.
At first my grandmother assumed our friendship was charming and innocent, but as the weeks passed, she suspected our growing passion and began to spy on us. When her suspicions were confirmed, she went to his parents.
We were forbidden to see each other alone after that, which only made us more determined.
I bribed one of my grandmother’s maids, Marie, to sleep in another servant girl’s room. Marie’s window, which was large enough for a man to crawl through, faced a narrow alley that our house and Leon’s shared. That night, after midnight, he sneaked out and came to me through the window. We met three more times that way. On the third night Grand-mère found us.
I was naked, and Leon was wearing his shirt. We were wrapped in each other’s arms, kissing, when my grandmother pulled us apart. Ignoring me, she grabbed Leon by the arm, dragging him out of our
house and to his own front door. I wrapped myself in a blanket and ran after them, crying, begging my grandmother not to say anything to his parents, that it was my fault, not his.
When the professor came to the door and saw Grand-mère, eyes ablaze, holding his practically nude son, he understood exactly what had happened.
Saying nothing, he reached out and slapped Leon.
Leon accepted the blow. His head fell forward. He began to gasp for air. Within moments he dropped to his knees on the stone cold steps as he desperately tried to breathe. And then Leon fell, still gasping, onto his side.
I screamed and ran forward, but my grandmother stopped me from going to him. She held me in her arms, held me as if just holding me was going to make everything all right, but it didn’t.
The professor raced inside—to get his son’s medicine, as it turned out—but by the time he returned minutes later, there was nothing he could do.
Leon died of an asthma attack in his father’s arms. He died while I stood there, helpless, watching in horror.
I don’t remember what I did after that, but I’ve been told I was ill for days: burning up with a fever and delirious. All I could think was that if Leon hadn’t been with me, if we hadn’t sneaked off, he would never have died. It was my fault. It was because of my passion, my hunger, my joy of being with him, of wanting more of him touching my breasts and whispering behind my ear . . . It was my fault for wanting to feel his lips bruising mine, for wanting to taste his sweet mouth . . . for craving the sensations building inside of me that I’d never felt before and that were so glorious . . . feelings I couldn’t get enough of. It was my fault because I wanted his fingers teasing me . . . touching me where he shouldn’t . . . making my heart quicken . . . making magic. It was my fault for not wanting to be a girl anymore but to come to life as a woman as I lay under him. It was that desire in me, those needs, that killed the first boy I’d ever
kissed . . . those cravings that were responsible for the first man I’d ever loved dying.
I vowed never to allow myself those feelings again. There was no good to come of them. In my delirium I saw myself as a succubus, one of those demon women I’d read about in the mythology books my father gave me. Evil beings I’d had nightmares about.
Now, ten years later, there I was, naked in Leon’s mother’s boudoir, and she was pulling a silken chemise over the same skin that her son had pressed his lips to.
How had her husband been able to abide bringing me into their home? How could they not hate me? How could Leon’s mother and father show me such kindness?
“There,” she said as she buttoned a dress up in the back. The fabric smelled of a fine, expensive perfume, and I felt cosseted and safer here than I had felt in weeks.
“Madame Ferre, can you tell me where my grandmother is? Why is the house dark? Why are the servants all gone? She never travels this time of year. Is she . . .” I was afraid to even say the words out loud. “Is she all right?” My voice broke as I asked.
My father was dead. I’d left my husband. And if Grand-mère was gone . . .
“She’s fine, Sandrine,” Madame Ferre said. “Your grandmother is planning a renovation. She’s taken an apartment not far from here so she can supervise the work. Come, finish getting dressed, and I’ll get you something to eat, and then we’ll take you to her.”
“There’s no need to do that, Bridgitte.” I recognized the rich honey-toned voice and spun around.
There was my grandmother in all of her glory. Blazing orange hair, fire opals at her ears and around her throat. A burnt-orange silk dress with black lace trim swirling around her.
I expected her to greet me the same way she used to when she visited me in New York, with open arms and joy, but the woman standing in the doorway was frowning.
“Sandrine, didn’t I tell you never to come back to Paris? This city is poison for you.” Her voice was tense and tight. “Why didn’t you listen?”
And in those last four words I heard something I’d never heard in her voice before—fear.