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Excerpt: 'The World Before Her'

'The World Before Her'

Chapter 1

Venice, 10 June 1880

The lady wore a sober dress of gray silk that shimmered like the sea on an overcast day. It was the silk that first caught James McNeill Whistler's eye, the rich ripples of light and darkness, but the lady held his attention. She was slender and small in stature, and Whistler was drawn to her straight, easy posture, her eager gait. He could not see her face, but he guessed that she was not young and not old either — thirty-five, perhaps.

From the cut of her dress and her confident progress through the flocks of pigeons and people milling about the Piazza San Marco, she was an Englishwoman. A tall man accompanied her, and they proceeded with an assurance that humans and birds alike would yield the path. The couple had entered the square from the direction of the Hôtel de l'Europe, where the English preferred to stay. Who had recently arrived? In Venice, news carried quickly, like sound over water. Maud would know.

He decided that the lady was one of those gentlewomen who moved inside a carapace of their homeland and on foreign soil disdained everything not English. Just now, she would be complaining to her companion about their accommodations in Venice's best hotel — and if Whistler were to encounter her at a dinner, she would complain to him as well, after she recalled vaguely that he was involved in some distasteful scandal having to do with the eminent critic John Ruskin, whom of course she worshiped. Although she would gaze diligently upon Venice's treasures, its squalor was what she would remember; she could understand that better than its beauty. Beauty lay beyond borders of feeling she would not permit herself to cross. Hanging in her country house would be portraits of her dogs.

Nonetheless, her bearing intrigued Whistler. He sat at a table at the Café Florian in a state of heightened receptivity — alert to the action of light, dazzled from his morning's expedition, his senses prickling with beauty. He had not yet absorbed what he had seen, had not yet organized its illusory perspective of sea and city and mountaintops. Now, with a kind of visual elation, he saw everything with preternatural clarity; he felt as if he could see emotion.

He had risen at six, fighting his desire to sleep off the excesses of the night before; his gondolier, Cavaldoro, had ferried him into the lagoon past the Giudecca to see the snowcapped crags of the Dolomites rising behind Venice like a painted scrim, glittering and hallucinatory in the golden eastern light. Maud had protested when he kicked off the sheet. "You paint fog," she remonstrated. "You paint fog better than anybody, you say so yourself. Stay with me — you came home so late." Pink and yielding she smiled and showed large pearly teeth.

"You can't paint fog unless you know what it hides," he had answered, and slithered out from under her. Was he doing so only to demonstrate the limits of his mistress's hold on him? No — the sight of the mountains did exalt him, released him for a moment from ambition and doubt. But amidst the crowded sense of urgent amusement in the piazza, his oppression returned.

Excerpted from The World Before Her. Copyright (c) 2008 by Deborah Weisgall. With permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. All rights reserved.

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Deborah Weisgall