New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 47: Unauthorised biting

That was long ago, and now the callow art student was an established portrait painter, in demand for portraits of husbands, commissioned by wives, of wives, commissioned by husbands, and of various public figures – the provosts of burghs, long-serving politicians, successful financiers, as well as those who had done nothing in particular with their lives but whose vanity was tickled by the thought of a portrait.

Tuesday, 13th October 2020, 7:00 am
44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

Angus painted with moral attention: he did not conceal or distort, but he understood ordinary human sensitivities. So, undictated to by his sitter, he instinctively found his or her best side, minor imperfections were dealt with charitably or made to seem a badge of character, and noses, if necessary, were slightly straightened or made less prominent. All of this was done out of kindness, that quality that eclipses all the other virtues, and that of itself is a perfectly adequate guide to the living of a good life.

There may have been little progress made on Glenbucket’s portrait that Saturday, but on the following Monday Angus had arranged for his subject to come to the studio at ten in the morning for a two-hour sitting. This would allow for sustained work on the face, particularly on the brow – Glenbucket’s most prominent feature. His was a strong face, one quite capable of bearing several centuries of genealogy, even if the genealogy involved tenuous and unconfirmed connections. The eyes were piercing, hawk-like, thought Angus, and the generous moustache, of the sort sometimes referred to as a walrus moustache, could only be sported by one who was confident in who he was. If you passed Glenbucket in the street, you would certainly notice him, and speculate perhaps on who he was and what he did: he was a farmer, perhaps, or an army officer who had allowed himself to expand a bit in the mid-section, or a captain in the merchant navy, on shore leave.

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You would not guess his provenance. You would not know from his clothes or his overall look that this was the joint-owner, along with a French businessman, of a small distillery on Speyside. You would not guess that this was a man who had a pilot’s licence; who read Ronsard and Apollinaire; who had invented a hot-pepper sauce that was stronger than Tabasco and was produced for export in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Nor would you guess that this was a man whose emotional life was dominated by a single consuming passion – not for another, but for a country, for Scotland.

Of course, his kilt, and the associated band of tartan draped across his shoulder, might have pointed in the direction of patriotism. And it was in this garb that he now stood before Angus, looking out, as instructed, past Angus, at a fixed point on the wall behind, where Cyril’s lead hung on a peg, along with the fob on which the key to Drummond Place Garden was secured.

Cyril himself lay on his studio blanket, feigning sleep but gazing, with a certain fascination, at the two sturdy, tartan hose-clad ankles that supported Glenbucket in all his Highland finery. Ankles, for Cyril, were a major moral challenge – perhaps the only moral challenge with which he had to wrestle. A dog is never tempted by the possibility of disloyalty or betrayal – such concepts are completely alien to the canine view of the world. A dog is never troubled by guilt if he succumbs to the temptation of discovered food, or if he chews on something that he knows he is not meant to chew upon. A dog may learn to expect punishment if he does any of those things, but he does not regard them as a moral issue. What is a moral issue, for a dog, though, is the question of when it is legitimate to bite a human. An authorised bite is one thing; and unauthorised one is quite another. Such a bite transgresses a term of the ancient compact between the canine and the human worlds, and dogs know it. And yet ankles for a dog are a target so tempting that it is sometimes impossible to do anything but break the terms of that old social contract and sink one’s teeth into an irresistible ankle. Cyril had done that from time to time in the past – particularly when confronted with Matthew’s ankles under the table at Big Lou’s coffee bar. The last time he had done that, giving Matthew a quick and hastily disengaged nip on the right ankle, he had been immediately punished by Angus – but it was worth it. The sheer pleasure of biting somebody’s ankle is something of which many dogs can only dream, but Cyril had done something to realise it, and he knew that it was every bit as satisfying as it might be imagined to be.

“Your dog,” said Glenbucket, “is watching me. I suppose I’m in his territory here, and he feels he has good reason to keep an eye on me.”

Angus glanced at Cyril from behind his canvas.

“I hope you don’t mind his being here,” he said. “He always keeps me company when I’m working in the studio. But I suppose I should ask people whether they mind.”

“I don’t mind in the slightest,” said Glenbucket. “I was raised with dogs. We had Dandie Dinmonts – you know those funny little dogs that Sir Walter Scott was so keen on. They were named after his character in Guy Mannering.”

“Of course,” said Angus. “One of Scott’s nicest characters, I think.”

“They’ve become quite rare,” said Glenbucket. “People are being encouraged to breed them in case they disappear altogether. My mother was very keen on them. She had four at one time, when we lived near Bridge of Earn. They were given to her by one of her lovers.”

Angus raised an eyebrow, but continued to paint.

“Your mother had lovers?” he asked, and then, realising this was an intrusive question, had added, “Not that I should ask that sort of thing.”

“Oh, she had lovers all right,” said Glenbucket. “She was infinitely alluring to men. They took one look at her and became weak at the knees. I saw it happen time and time again.” He paused, and smiled at a memory. “I remember when she was stopped for speeding in Italy once, on the road out of Perugia. I was in the car with her – I was about fourteen at the time, and embarrassed, as all fourteen-year-olds are, by my parents. I knew she had lovers, you see – I called them uncles – and I realised that none of the mothers of any of my friends strayed from the straightest and narrowest of paths in that respect. But mine did, and barely tried to conceal the fact from me.

“The policeman flagged us down and came up to speak to my mother. He was wearing one of those Carabinieri uniforms – you know, dark blue jodhpurs and shining boots, mirror-like in their intensity of their polish – and a cap that peaked in a jaunty manner, sporting that Carabinieri symbol of a flaming torch.

“I imagined that all was lost and that a heavy fine would be imposed, or that my mother would be dragged off to some medieval Italian prison, full to the gunnels with Mafiosi and ferrety Sicilian pickpockets, sent from the South to pick the pockets of the North, but no, my mother simply smiled at the policeman and then complimented him on his uniform. He was clearly pleased, and they spent the next twenty minutes discussing the cut of his trousers and jacket, before he waved us on with a recommendation of a restaurant in Assisi, near the Basilica of Saint Francis, where Giotto portrays St Francis feeding the birds, in which the speciality of the house was, by unironic coincidence, roast partridge and various little birds – swallows and the like – done to a tee on the spit.”