“Ma’am, it’s Mr. Banks from the Herald,” the butler announced.
Mrs. Sheridan put away her needlework and looked up. “Show him into the gallery please.”
Led by the butler, Mr. Banks traversed through several corridors to reach this imposing room, situated at what he correctly surmised as the back of the mansion. Five large windows allowed the late afternoon light to flood in.
Mrs. Sheridan strode purposefully to the heavy writing desk. She retrieved a worn letter from the top drawer and her practiced eyes went instantly to the conclusion: Yours etc., Mary Eleanor Walsh. P.S. – I heard that Thomas is back, but unsure of his welcome. With a deep sigh, she restored the letter.
Ten minutes later, Mr. Banks heard footsteps and turned away reluctantly from the pictures on the wall. He raised his hat to greet the stately, middle-aged woman who entered through one of several grand doors that opened into the gallery. “Mr. Banks?” she asked, not masking her surprise. She approached the intricately carved mahogany sofas in the center of the room and asked, “Will you not be seated?”
“You were expecting me, were you not, Mrs. Sheridan?”
“Well, yes and no. I was expecting someone older.”
“I have worked with Mr. Heathcliff for several years now.”
“Oh, that is reassuring, I promise you.” They sat down opposite each other. “Are you familiar with my daughter’s paintings?” Mrs. Sheridan asked directly.
“Yes, of course.” He glanced around at the paintings hung in ornate frames. “That’s the most famous one – ‘Autumn Leaves’, is it not? I remember seeing it in the Boston Art Gallery.”
“Indeed,” she said, beaming with pride.
“I noticed there was a winter depiction of the same scene,” said Mr. Banks, searching the wall on his right.
“Oh, Edith painted all seasons in that location!”
Mr. Banks got his notebook out and started writing. “Will Miss Sheridan join us soon?” He leaned forward and added, “I have so many questions to ask her.”
“I’m afraid not. Edith doesn’t do interviews.”
Mr. Banks was dumbfounded. He looked at his hostess for a few seconds before turning to his notes. Regaining his composure, he began, “Has she been painting since childhood, ma’am?”
“She was ten when her art turned profound. She had the benefit of good teachers, thereafter.”
“I see.” Mr. Banks bided his time. He was sure there was a good reason he was called in. It was clear that Ms. Edith Sheridan required no help with her career. She had talent, was already famous, and to crown that, she came from an immensely wealthy family.
Several more questions and some brief answers later, a silence fell in the room. The wind, however, tried to fill the void with a whistling sound. Both occupants simultaneously turned towards the same window. A few, fast-moving clouds, dotted the sky.
“What is the story behind ‘Autumn Leaves’?” Mr. Banks asked suddenly, recalling his editor’s cryptic words.
Mrs. Sheridan stiffened under his curious gaze. The pen hovered over his notebook. She quickly left her seat and reached the only covered window in the gallery. She drew the curtains back, as though that contained all the answers.
For a full minute, Mr. Banks stared speechlessly at the spectacular view. The sun was about to set and the leaves were being blown around by the wind. It was like watching ‘Autumn Leaves’ come alive, only brighter. There were trees and more trees, all competing with each other to showcase nature’s beauty and bounty.
Under his mesmerized gaze, a young woman emerged from behind a large tree, standing out amidst the riot of color. She was dressed in a long white gown and her hair fell to her waist in loose curls. He concluded it was the artist herself. She fought with the wind and gathered her shawl close, but the wind took revenge by wreaking havoc in her auburn hair.
Mrs. Sheridan quickly turned to face Mr. Banks as though she wished to shield her daughter from prying eyes. Her gaze moved beyond him as the housekeeper entered just then, bearing a heavy tea tray, providing a welcome distraction to at least one person in the room.
It was several minutes later that Mrs. Sheridan spoke. “Edith was to be married right there, two years ago,” she said with a quick glance at the window. Her daughter was no longer within sight.
“But the wedding never took place,” Mr. Banks finished for her, his voice almost inaudible.
A shadow crossed her face. “Thomas Walters was – is a naturalist. Apparently, he realized just a day before the wedding, that he had some unfinished business. Business that took him to another continent.” The bitterness was palpable.
“I see,” said Mr. Banks. He could indeed see the whole picture clearly now. “I doubt the Boston Herald is read outside the country, however, ma’am.”
She gave him an unequivocal look. “Within the country will do just as well now, or so I have been informed.” She rose and glided towards one of the paintings, and seemed to be lost in its contemplation.
Mr. Banks grew impatient. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a movement on the grounds, and took a few steps to get a better view.
“Ah, and there is one more thing, Mr. Banks,” the lady said, apparently addressing the painting. “There is a large collection called ‘Shades of Autumn’. You will be granted an exclusive first viewing.”
“I am grateful for the honor madam, but I’m afraid I shall not publish this interview, in any form.”
Mrs. Sheridan spun around. “I beg your pardon?” she thundered.
Mr. Banks returned her gaze without flinching. Slowly, he smiled and stepped away from the window so she could have a clear vision of the grounds.
A radiant Edith Sheridan stretched out her hand towards a young gentleman, who was down on one knee. The autumn leaves swirled around them in a divine dance.