James Tissot, ‘Holyday’ c.1876
James Tissot
Holyday c.1876

Death of an Advocate

A short story by Rose Tremain inspired by James Tissot’s Holyday  circa 1876

The thing which first annoyed Albert about that afternoon was everybody pretending they weren’t cold.

He considered this ridiculous: his wife, Berthe, his sister-in-law Marianne, his parents-in-law, Claude and Joséphine sprawled there on the tartan pic-nic rug in the weak October sunshine, drinking their tea, smiling, listening to the birds, as though this were a hot day in July.

‘You know it’s freezing,’ Albert announced.

Nobody paid him any attention. They just carried on sitting still.

For that was what this pic-nic seemed to be about: about eating cake and sipping tea and then falling silent and staring at Nature – or what passed for Nature in this part of the municipal park - everybody hunched and separate and in a reverie of his own. Albert noticed with irritation that the women even pretended the chestnut leaves weren’t falling on the pic-nic cloth. They let them lie there, as though they didn’t see them, or as though the brown leaves might have been slivers of fruitcake left half-eaten through inattention.

‘Stupid,’ said Albert under his breath. ‘Absolutely stupid.’

A wasp arrived and began crawling over the cake. He stared venomously at it. As a child, he’d almost died from a wasp sting.

The natural world waged a senseless war with Man which exasperated Albert. How he hated this kind of Sunday outing! He wished he was in his office in the rue St Hippolyte, immersed in the Estate Accounts of one of his solidly wealthy burgher clients, or, better still, about to read out - in all the glory of its repetitive and complicated language - the Will of an aristocrat to the dead man’s confused and betrayed wife.

Albert loved this work. Love was not too strong a word to attach to the feelings he had for it. Berthe sometimes teased him that he loved only the fees he earned, those rounded 10 per cents which followed one another in a steady and almost unbroken stream. “Non, ma chérie, ” he always told her, “it’s the lawyer’s work itself, that sorting out and tallying up of things which I adore.” Albert went so far as to admit that he often felt himself to be boiling up with contentment in his chosen profession. ‘Boiling up’ was how he liked to put it. Because it made him hot and scarlet and he could feel his feet burning and he could imagine his liver, beet-red and glistening.

But now, sitting in the park on this October Sunday in the year 1877, Albert felt cold. He picked up one of the voluminous table napkins provided for the pic-nic by Berthe, and wound it round his neck. Marianne giggled. “I don’t know what you look like!” she said.

‘If you don’t know what I look like, then why did you say anything, Marianne?’ said Albert. ‘If you had found some witty comparison between me and, say, some little known species of marsupial, then you might have given us a moment’s amusement, but as it is you’ve just wasted your breath.’

Berthe, against whose familiar rump Albert was reclining, turned her head and looked sharply at him. Why, came her unspoken question, was he being so pompous and disagreeable, especially to Marianne, upon whom, everybody knew, he doted in a way that was sometimes almost troubling?

Why indeed? Why? Albert didn’t know. He stared at Marianne, at her pretty face under her smart Sunday bonnet, at the bodice of her striped taffeta dress and waited for the pleasurable and familiar feeling of mild lust to arrive in his groin. But what arrived instead was a feeling of boredom so crushing, so absolute, that Albert had the sensation of falling over. He was glad that he wasn’t standing up, for then, surely, he would have fallen over. It was as if the sky had literally darkened, or as if the universe were collapsing in on itself.
Albert looked away from Marianne. He saw that he was still holding his tea cup. He examined his own thumb on the rim of the saucer.

He thought how plump, pink and ridiculous this thumb appeared. He set the cup down and now realised that everybody had turned away from him: Marianne and Berthe and his six year-old daughter, Delphine, and Claude and Joséphine. All of them had turned their backs on him. The child was whispering something to herself, one of her little songs, but the grown-ups remained silent and unmoving and Albert wondered whether they knew what was happening to him, knew that his universe was faltering, and that, lying as he was near the rim of the pond, they were simply waiting for the moment when he would roll backwards and fall into the water and drown under the flat green leaves of the water-lilies.