The crowd gathered in the golden chamber of the famous Paris auction house had come tonight with their wallets bulging. Elegant ladies in sparkling evening gowns sat on high-backed gilt salon chairs, clutching bidding paddles in their manicured hands, while their well-dressed husbands sat beside them looking nervous at the amount of money they were about to spend. Already tonight a small fortune had gone under the hammer. The annual auction of works by the graduates of the Parisian School des Beaux-Arts always attracted the clever art collectors who knew that one day the paintings they picked up in this room for relative peanuts could snowball in value and be resold for millions. Throughout the evening the bidding had been steady but unremarkable. Now, though, there was an electric tension in the room as two men dressed in white coats and gloves carried the next painting to the front and placed it gingerly on the easel beside the auctioneer.
At the very back of the auction chamber, Maisie rose on tiptoes to get a better view. Crammed in, where it was standing room only, she was terrified she would do something dumb, like raising her hand to scratch her nose and bidding by mistake. There was no way she could afford to buy this painting! Which was ironic, really, since Maisie was the artist who had painted it.
“Lot number sixty-seven!” the auctioneer, Monsieur Falaise, announced to his audience. “This substantial work, in oil on canvas, is entitled, Claude.”
Monsieur Falaise, a thin man with a pointy chin, scanned the faces of the wealthy art patrons and felt certain that he knew which bidders would raise their paddles for this one. Over the years, he had developed an instinct for such things. So far tonight, he had watched as the bidders fought over various works of modern art– abstract and bold. This new painting, Claude, was quite the opposite of all that had gone before. The portrait of the black horse was in the mode of the classical realist masters. It was so detailed, and so lifelike. To think that it had been painted by a thirteen-year-old girl! Monsieur Falaise shook his head in disbelief. The work was so mature, and it was not just that it was magnificent in its technicalities. No, it was the heart that it possessed. The painting was imbued with such a depth of emotion it was impossible to gaze upon it without being reduced to tears. Monsieur Falaise wasn’t ashamed to say that his own eyes had welled up a little when he saw it for the first time. And even now, in the thrust and clamour of the auction room as the bidders prepared themselves for the fierce battle ahead, he could see the patrons dabbing their eyes to quell their tears as a profound solemnity filled the room. For Claude, the subject of this remarkable work of art, was more than just a horse. For the people of Paris he embodied so much of what made the city great; looking upon him made hearts break. And art that makes a heart break is always worth a fortune.
“Who will open the bidding at five thousand euros?” At the back of the room Maisie let out a squeak.
Five thousand euros! It was a staggering figure! The other works the crowd had bid on so far that night had been much cheaper. Most of them ultimately sold for less than two thousand euros. To launch the bidding straight off at such a high figure was surely madness? But Monsieur Falaise knew two things: he knew his audience, and he knew precisely what this painting, at centre stage right now, meant to the people of Paris. And he was right. Within a split second of the bid being announced there was a paddle held aloft in the front row in reply.
“I have five thousand bid!” Monsieur Falaise snapped into action. “Alors! We are underway! Who will give me six thousand?”
Straight away, another paddle went up.
“I have six, six. Who will give me seven? Yes! Seven .?.?.”
At the back of the room, Maisie watched silently as the price of the painting – her painting – continued to climb. Soon, the price was at ten thousand euros. Then it climbed higher still! Leaping up by a thousand euros at a time, again and again, until the bid rapidly reached twenty thousand. Even then, the paddle-holders did not slow, and soon twenty became thirty and thirty became forty!
There was a moment, at forty-five thousand, when a woman in the front row wearing a Chanel suit and jet-black sunglasses, decided to trump all the other bidders and proclaimed in an icy tone that she was raising the bid to fifty-one thousand, and a mutual sigh of defeat swept the room. Then, a grey-haired gentleman in a cravat came straight back at her and proclaimed “Fifty-three!” and the bidding was off again!
All the while, as the price climbed ever higher, Maisie felt more and more anxious. In this room, with Claude’s black eyes staring at her, she was suddenly gripped with claustrophobia and remorse. How ridic-ulous to come here now when the real Claude was in such pain and the clock was ticking! What had she been thinking?
Maisie turned to leave, but the crowd were pressed together like sardines.
“I’m sorry! I have to go!” She began to try and push her way out, but the occupants of the auction room were so intently focused on the drama that was unfolding before them they refused to budge. Maisie tried again, in French this time. “Je suis desolé! Pardon, pardon .?.?.”
Her pleading had no effect. Maisie could feel the room closing in on her, her heart racing in panic.
“Please! I have to go!”
And then, as if by a miracle, the crowd parted, and there was Nicole Bonifait, Maisie’s patron, so-to-speak,right in front of her, clearing the people out of the way, grasping Maisie’s wrist to guide her through.
“It’s OK, Chou-chou,” Nicole said. “Come with me now. I have you!” and Maisie felt Nicole’s arms around her, ushering her through the crush, until a moment later they were out of the room into the foyer and then through the front doors, stumbling down the marble stairs on to the wide Parisian street below. Maisie was taking deep breaths, her hands on her knees as Nicole barked at one of the waiters at a pavement café nearby to bring them one of his chairs. Tout de suite!!
The waiter hastily obliged, and Nicole sat Maisie down in the middle of the street and told the waiter to bring them water.
“Here, drink this.” Nicole gave a fluted glass full of fizzy water to Maisie, who gratefully slugged it back in a single gulp. Her head was spinning.
“I’m fine,” Maisie insisted. “Nicole, I need to go –” “Oui, oui, Petit Chou-chou Anglaise,” Nicole soothed,
“but take a moment first to catch your breath.”
Petit Chou-chou Anglaise. Nicole’s nickname for Maisie. It meant Little English Cabbage. When Nicole had first told Maisie this, she thought it perhaps was supposed to be an insult, but Nicole assured her it was quite affectionate! Nicole Bonifait was half-British herself, as she’d pointed out to Maisie when they’d first met. And in a way, it was Nicole’s English ancestry that had created the art scholarship that had changed everything and set Maisie off on this whole unbelievable adventure. Six months ago Maisie had been an ordinary schoolkid, living on a council estate in Brixton, South London. Now, here she was, sitting outside Lucie’s, the most prestigious auction house in the whole of Paris, while the rich and the fabulous of the city tried to outbid each other over her art.
“Do you feel well enough to go back inside now?” Nicole asked her. “This is your moment of glory. Your work is going to fetch a record price, I think.”
Maisie shook her head. “I’m not going back in. I don’t care about the painting. I want to go back to Claude.”
Nicole gave her hand a squeeze. “I understand completely,” she said. “Who cares about a room full of bourgeoisie? Tonight, of all nights, you should be with him, no?”
“Yes,” Maisie replied. “I’m not being ungrateful Nicole .?.?. I know how much this means to you .?.?.” “Don’t be silly, Chou-chou!” Nicole hugged Maisie tight. “Go to him now! We have done what we can, but if these are truly to be his final hours you should be at his side.”
Maisie found that her legs were surprisingly jelly-like when she rose from her chair, but she felt a steely deter-mination that drove her on, made her put one foot in front of the other as she turned away from the auction house, heading down the boulevard Henri IV. Lucie’s was walking distance from the stables of the Célestins, home to the mounted French police known as the Republican Guard. But as Maisie regained her strength that walk soon became a run. And it was as she was running that the tears began to come. She sniffled and choked as she wiped them away and kept running onwards through the crossroads. Car horns honked as she ignored the lights, cyclists yelled at her as she sped in front of their bikes. Then, at last, lungs aching, she reached the front gates of the Couvent des Célestins.
It was amazing to think that nearly two hundred horses lived right here in these opulent stables in the heart of Paris. These were city horses, accustomed to the hum and buzz of urban life, cared for by their riders, the noble gendarmes, the policemen of the Republican Guard. Maisie was lucky. Alexandre, of all people, was on gate duty tonight – thank God! He had his feet up and was reading the paper and he got a shock when she knocked on the sentry box window to be let inside.
“Maisie?” He dropped the paper immediately. “I thought you were at the auction?”
Maisie’s heart was still pounding from the run. “Alexandre, please? May I come in?”
Alexandre frowned. “You shouldn’t be here, Maisie, not now .?.?. They will be coming for him soon.”
Alexandre tried to resist but he could see the quiver of Maisie’s bottom lip and the tear stains on her cheeks. He gave a sigh and reached beneath the desk of the sentry box, pressed the button, and the automatic doors swung open.
“If the guards come, you make yourself invisible, yes?” Alexandre looked hard at her, making his point clear. “You are not here.”
“I am not here,” Maisie agreed. “I am a shadow.” “That’s my girl,” Alexandre said. And then, with a wave of his hand, “Hurry now! A shadow moves
quickly! Go to him!”
Maisie slipped briskly through the gates and across the courtyard, dashing between the clipped hedges and fountains to reach the stable block, sticking close to the walls where the security lights did not reach. She tiptoed across the cobblestones, creaked through the doors until, at last, she had made her way to Claude’s stall.
“Claude?” Maisie spoke his name as she pulled the bolt and opened the door. Part of her was afraid at that moment that they would have sneaked in and come for him and he’d already be gone. But no. He was there. He nickered softly at the sight of her, and she met his dark, soulful eyes. The very same eyes she had recreated in the painting being auctioned right now at Lucie’s.
Oh, but in real life he was so much more handsome! Of all the many beautiful and noble-blooded stallions who lived here in the stables of the Célestins, he was the most breathtaking. Jet-black with four white socks on his legs and a star on his forehead. A classic Selle Français, he had always turned heads when he was ridden on parade. That first day that Maisie had seen him, he had stood out above all the rest and she knew he was special – as indeed he had proved to be.
“Hello, my brave boy.” Maisie spoke softly, and the stallion raised up his elegant crest to nicker to her. Then, exhaustion and pain overcame him and he let his mighty head fall between his forelegs like a dying swan in a ballet.
“Claude,” Maisie knelt beside him and, using all her strength, she helped to lift his head, cradling him in her arms.
“I know you’re in such pain, Claude,” she whispered as she stroked his forelock, “but you won’t need to be brave for much longer. I promise you, when they come for you, no matter how much it breaks my heart, I will stick by you. I’ll be with you at the end. I promise, I promise .?.?.”
When Maisie had first come to Paris, she had marvelled at the beauty of this city. Her favourite time was the early morning when the sunrise washed the dove-grey rooftops an iridescent pink and the River Seine seemed to be made of molten gold. As an artist, she loved the dawn and its transformative, divine light. But tonight, as she held Claude tight in her arms, she dreaded the sunrise with all her heart. For when the night had ended, and the guards of the Célestins returned, Claude would be taken from her. And the light would be gone from Paris forever.