The following excerpt from The Night Language by David Rocklin has been excerpted with permission from Rare Bird Books.
The Night Language (excerpt)
17 December 1900
At last, some daylight.
The sun broke through in the afternoon, following two days of thick black clouds and downpours that had him spending his holiday running from doorway to café canopy. Now, finally, he could paint.
He unpacked his canvas and set up his easel on the path that ran along the blue ribbon of sea between Nice and Monaco. Mixing his oils, he gazed at the vista before him, acquainting himself with the particular shades of sunlight and the way they teased both color and shape from the land. Already he’d painted a good deal of the distant village, and in just two days’ time.
A wonderful two days, he thought, in which he got thoroughly lost in his composition while occasionally humming a forgotten adagio. He worked without interruption, oblivious to everything around him. Thinking of nothing, only colors, tones, rims, and borders. Fellow visitors may have passed by him as he worked, or not.
Villefranche clustered under the soft gold dust of the sun’s rays breaking through the last cloud cover left by the passing storm. It was built up against a striated wall of rust-colored rock some six hundred feet high. Above the tile roofs of the homes and the cathedral, wispy tendrils lifted from the cooking fires of restaurants and cafés.
Gulls soared down from the ledge in a tight arrow, passing the zigzagging switchback trails carved into the cliff face. In the light they resembled falling bodies clad in white. Their shadows bent across the cliffs as they abruptly pulled out of their dives just before hitting the foaming waves. They flew close, their outstretched wings ruffling the surface of the sea. The wind they rode was cold and strong.
He weighted his easel with smooth stones, then daubed at the cliff paths with a mix of sienna and bay to catch the smoothing effect of the last days’ rains. As he worked, enjoying the pleasant briskness of the air and the faint sounds of Villefranche’s townspeople emerging from their homes, he took notice of a sleek canot drifting in on the tide toward the natural stone jetty that stood as the town’s lone port. Such an unremarkable thing, visitors on an outing to the Mediterranean town. The area had gained a reputation for its agreeable weather, its flourishing casinos and fine hotels. The fact that the boat he spied was filled stem to stern with finely dressed ladies in broad seaside hats and immaculate dresses of milk and wheat shouldn’t have held his attention for more than a moment. And yet he couldn’t reclaim the sense of disappearing into his work that he craved, not while the ornate canot drifted toward land.
Muttering curses at his own inability to concentrate, he watched the ladies gather around a figure on the canot, a woman dressed entirely in black. It seemed that they were trying to shield her. The chill, he thought, or the prying eyes of others. Perhaps she was someone of note.
He’d come to Villefranche from Paris for the same reason he always did. The city would grow too hot, too cold, or too close, and he’d find that he needed to step away from his days living and working in the Marais to be alone at the water’s edge, staring at the low leaden horizon line. There had been far too many tourists on his last few visits, and he’d begun considering other destinations he could escape to before deciding to give this spot one last chance.
In any event, it was best to catch the light before him while it lasted. If he just set to working again, he felt confident that he’d make progress.
The painted cliff paths looked good, so he turned his attention to the cove at the base of the village. An excuse to watch the canot, its oars lifted in surrender to the pull of the tide.
A local piloted it, he could tell. They knew how fruitless it was to row once they got close to the stone jetty.
I’ll watch just a bit longer, he decided. Maybe this is a new painting, presenting itself to me.
The black-clad figure struggled to her feet. She was immediately surrounded by the finely dressed women.
A rich invalid, no doubt.
He selected a thin horsehair brush and daubed a bit of gray on Villefranche itself, on its narrow sidewalks that a grown man could span wall to wall with outstretched arms, its descending stairways, down to the sea path and the first shades of aqua.
The woman in black got out of the canot, followed closely by the others. Her baggy, overly billowing clothing was in fact a formal dress. It was dark and jeweled with some sort of stone that ignited from the sunlight. The woman herself appeared small, stooped, unsteady, and slow.
A rich, old invalid, he thought with a shake of his head. Still, he couldn’t stop staring. A sense of unease slowly rose in him.
This is ridiculous, he thought, but the feeling wouldn’t go away.
As the rest of the elderly woman’s entourage stepped onto the jetty, a second boat floated in. It was as full as hers had been, with similarly dressed women. They got out en masse, dislodging the feral cats sunning themselves atop and between the jetty stones.
So this was some sort of idyllic invasion—the first wave of dowagers on holiday marching their staffs across the path to the small-stakes baccarat tables in Monaco.
He tried to amuse himself, but his hands were trembling. Without being aware, he’d put down his brush. He was stepping away from his canvas, gazing around his position on the path for places to hide. It had been years since he felt so conspicuous and exposed. A voice from long ago filled his head.
We could run.
Calm yourself, he thought. What will passersby think of me? A Negro among good white faces, searching for where to go to ground like a criminal. There’s no reason for this. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Nothing.
He stared at the black-clad figure until she was close enough to make out.
Dear god, it’s her. Victoria, queen of England.
The shuffling old woman’s companions produced parasols. One held hers high above her head, blocking the sun and extinguishing the flare that burst from the queen’s crown.
Move, you idiot, before she sees you.
He ran for cover behind a tall row of wild heather. From there he spied her no more than twenty feet away. Those few villagers out walking were now realizing who moved among them, as if such a thing were normal. They bowed and curtsied and cheered her. La reine! La reine Victoria!
God, how old she’d become. How ungraceful. Time, he thought, wins every argument.
It was her daughter Louise who held the parasol up like a shield against the insistent sun. More than thirty years had passed since he’d last seen either of them at Windsor and suddenly there they were, walking together in another country and not fifty feet from him. Behind them came the usual downstairs help, brought from their normal posts in liveries and dressing rooms out into the light. A lady-in-waiting, a footman, a valet. No one he knew anymore.
The queen walked toward the shoreline, passing his easel while her entourage huddled together against the wind. She lingered a moment at his painting, studying it and smiling wistfully. She looked around for the artist, but he was well hidden.
At the sea, the queen stared at the coming tide. Clouds crept in from the south, covering the sun. The light dwindled. Villefranche by the sea descended into the steely gloom he’d grown used to over the last days.
He remembered that way the queen had of losing herself in her surroundings. Watching her, he wondered if she ever thought of him anymore. Perhaps the passage of all those years had finally swept his name away.
Her time alone lasted fifteen minutes, maybe longer. As the breeze grew bitter, Louise covered her mother’s shoulders with an ermine wrap. The queen leaned against her daughter for support.
They returned together to the sea path. There, the queen paused again near the painting. Fleetingly, he thought he saw something alight in her expression. Then it was gone, replaced by a familiar stony resolve.
“Are you well?” he heard the princess ask. “You look pale, Mother. Perhaps we should return home.”
“No.” The queen’s voice was hushed and trembling. “Let us have our holiday. We ought not allow the odd memory to ruin our time.”
“Memory? Is something troubling you?”
“No more than any day.”
Together they continued toward the path and soon to the crags of the jetty, where their entourage split into two. The larger group clambered onto the waiting boats. The canot pilots poled them away from land, onto the swelling crests of the port current.
The remaining few walked behind the queen and princess. Every so often, the queen paused to rest. Her servant staff waited, heads bowed, for her to move again.
Well, of course, he thought. She’s old. Ill, maybe. Nothing and no one is forever. Feeling a pang for someone I haven’t seen in three decades is sentimental and foolish. Any moment, the queen and princess would be so far away that they’d never see him, and he could emerge from his hiding place and pick up where he’d left off, carrying on as if nothing had happened.
Yet he wanted to cry out to her, to see if she’d turn around. She would come back to him. What would she say? What would he? Your Majesty, you can’t simply appear as if out of a cloud, rain down all that you carry that rightfully belongs to me—the names, the faces, the nights—only to leave while these memories invade me without regard for my life to demand that I find a place for them. You can’t.
When she was merely a speck on the path alongside the light-dappled sea, he emerged from the hedgerow and told himself that it was time to go. There’d be no more painting and it was useless to pretend otherwise. His focus and desire were gone. Tomorrow, he’d get things sorted. Yes, he’d seen her, true enough, and maybe some memories were dusting themselves off and presenting themselves, but that was all. Nothing had changed. It didn’t matter. He could simply paint in the early morning, return to Paris on the evening train, arrive near dawn a few hours sleep, then unpack and resume the day’s work, and the next. The life he’d made was still there, waiting for him. He was in no danger of being revealed.
He didn’t hear the villagers’ excited talk of glimpsing the queen, or the sea that had silently brought her here. Only his panicking heart and long-ago words ringing as clear as the bell at Saint-Paul. What is love, in the end?
Love is language.
He packed his easel, then turned around on the path that led back to his villa and walked along the sea, trailing the queen until she came to a far dock near one of the fine hotels dotting the coastline. There, she stopped again. In time, she gathered the strength to go inside. By evening, she hadn’t come back out.
It was over, this unexpected unearthing of old things from another, far different life. All he had to do was leave.
He took a seat on a rusted seaside bench and watched lights come up in the hotel windows. Over the course of the night those lights extinguished. The storm clouds returned but didn’t bring rain, only a covering that smothered the stars and took the light away.
He could scarcely make out the contours of his hand, held up to the sky. It was as if he’d been erased from the world.
Somewhere inside, the queen slept. He wondered if the ghosts of her own past gathered around her as they did around him.
When she departed in the bright morning, he was still there. For the next three days, he followed her throughout France.
He learned that the queen wasn’t on a state visit. One of the royal physicians had ordered a holiday out of concern for her ailments. She was suffering from pains, loneliness, and the real and imagined afflictions of the shut-in she was. She chose to spend that prescribed holiday in Cannes, Versailles, and the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
She visited Cimiez for a day, before journeying to Monte Carlo—he snuck onto an adjacent train car to follow. From the window he took in scenes of pastoral beauty. Local shepherds in knee breeches, white stockings and leggings, large black felt hats, tended to flocks as the train swept by like a meteor, making a blurred dream of the passing landscape.
Reginald Manfrey, the shipping magnate, had a villa in Menton. The queen journeyed there and he followed. In the evening she dined at the Royal Opera House in Versailles. The stalls were cleared to make room for more than one hundred guests, with the sovereigns seated on the right of the Royal Box, beneath garlands hung from vaults and chandeliers. From outside its walls, he heard the musicians perfectly execute pieces from Strauss and Dufresne. Their swelling crescendos swept away the cacophony of the street.
She made other stops. The stuff of tourism, like visits to the Louvre and the Palais de Saint-Cloud. Once he spied her through a window, enjoying a private moment with Princess Louise over a drink at the Grand Hotel in Nice. Away from her own country, the simple act of sitting across from her daughter’s open and adoring face must have felt like a moment of pure serenity.
He chose to believe that. She didn’t deserve to be lonely. No one did.
On the last day she toured the Avenue des Nations at the Exposition Universelle in the company of her daughter, their servants, and a dozen gendarmes. They boarded a small locomotive and slowly rolled along a gauge railway, past careful reconstructions of the Bastille and the Galerie des Machines. Occasionally, someone called for the car to halt, and she got out to the astonishment of the other visitors to the grounds.
Police kept the crowds well clear of her, affording him ample cover. Moving with the masses, he watched her stroll through the remnant gardens from the Paris World’s Fair, past exhibit buildings constructed from jute, a Parisian invention. She continued by stalls featuring the newly minted discoveries by which the coming century announced itself. Bell’s telephone. Arc lighting of the most fascinating sort, installed along the Avenue de l’Opéra and the Place de l’Opéra, powered by Zénobe Gramme dynamos that pulsed like blood flow.
Her expression, as far as he could make out from behind a display of Edison’s phonographs and megaphones, suggested fear. It troubled her, the changes to life as she knew it.
They followed the winding garden paths. She didn’t stay long at anything she saw until she and her entourage found the Human Zoo.
Signs boasted that the Human Zoo exhibit featured four hundred natives from Africa and the Orient. A man in a heavy woolen coat and top hat bowed deeply to the queen and princess, then raised a walking stick. On his silent signal, a chorus of guttural howls rose up from deep within a display of a mock tribal village. Thirty or more half-naked Negroes rushed out from behind grass huts and shrubs as if on the attack. They gnawed at bones, leveled spears at stuffed prey animals, shimmered before burning tribal fires, dancing and singing gibberish that made him ill.
There’s no stronger cage for a Negro, he thought as he watched, than the white man’s imaginings of him.
The display went on for ten minutes until the show’s finale. The natives acted out the sacrifice of one of their own behind a curtain of fanned feathers. A boy, cut down and carried off to pagan gods.
Her Majesty’s hand rose to her lips in disgust.
At the foot of a jute statue, the natives lay the boy down and began to club him with the blunt ends of their spears. They made contact with the boy, who was just into his manhood. Sixteen, maybe. The beating was light by the sound of the wood against his back. It was all for show, for her benefit. Every few strikes, the natives paused in their violence and their war cries to glance at the top-hatted barker for direction. Their pale eyes pleaded. Do we have to keep doing this? Then they resumed hitting the boy.
“Stop,” the queen said softly. “Make it stop.”
“Your Majesty?” one of the women accompanying the queen said.
He moved through the crowd, closer to the front and the African village. It smelled like the lie that it was, plaster and woodrot. He feared being seen, but the queen’s face beckoned to him. She was in some sort of agony.
“Stop this.” Her voice was hoarse and weak. “It’s awful, that you should do this in front of us. We cannot see this.”
“Mother,” Princess Louise said, “are you unwell?”
“I sent him away.”
The queen spoke those words to the natives. He saw her do it. He heard her, as clear as anything anyone had ever said.
The natives dropped their spears. They stood uncertainly around the boy, who winced confusedly as he rubbed his neck.
The queen looked at them with such obvious clarity that he no longer cared if he might be seen. Whether she, the princess, or anyone recognized him didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that there had always been a wall separating him from everyone else.
Look at her, he thought.
Princess Louise took the queen by the arm. “I sent him away and I knew he’d die,” the queen blurted as her daughter tried to turn her from the exhibit. “Of course I did. I could have fought on. I could have hidden him or just told him to run. I could have done something. Oh, God.”
“There were no choices left to us,” Princess Louise argued. “You know that, don’t you? After all these years, Mother, please don’t torture yourself now. Not now, of all times.”
“Oh God, I killed Alamayou, I killed him.”
She crumpled to the cold pavement. “Alamayou!” she cried as the princess cradled her head in her arms. The gendarmes joined her. The natives vaulted their exhibit’s fence to aid the queen. They made a tight circle around her, closing in fast.
“Leave her alone!” the princess screamed, and they all backed away. “Can’t you see she’s dying?”
David Rocklin is the author of two novels, The Luminist and The Night Language. He is also the founder/curator of Roar Shack, a monthly reading series in Los Angeles. He was born and raised in Chicago and now lives in LA with his wife, daughters and a 150 lb Great Dane who seriously needs to stay on his own bed. He’s currently at work on his next novel, The Electric Love Song of Fleischl Berger.