In Tidewater Virginia in July, 2017, Max Stewart unloaded from his SUV a nine-foot inflatable dinghy, then pumped it up by foot. With him were his cousin Sally Angland and her university friend Simon Grant. “What’s this crazy trip about?” Max asked.
“As you know,” Sally said, “I’m publishing my book on Impressionist painters. It highlights Richard Vlass, a university professor and art expert. But oddly in his early career he published nothing significant. Then in 2015, while dating a young woman, Vlass published three important studies of modern art.
“Now here’s the mystery. All we knew about Vlass’s friend was that she had dark hair and played a violin. Last year she disappeared from Vlass’s life. And since then Vlass has publi nothing. But recently Simon found a clue.”
Now Max was positioning a fifteen-horsepower outboard motor over his dinghy’s transom. As he tightened the clamps of the mounting bracket, he got the fuel tank vent open. Meanwhile, Simon explained:
“Vlass was from this coast: Dunfermline, Virginia. I happened to see a magazine photo of the local chamber orchestra. It included a tall, dark-haired girl violinist, Claire Devereux. I started making phone calls and yes, it seems Claire and Vlass were once a talked-about couple. Since then she’s suffered a mental collapse and is living as a tramp in some old waterfront ruins.”
“I desperately need to talk to her before my book’s published,” Sally said. “This could enliven my professional life.”
Well, luckily the outboard engine was a sweetheart. She started on the second pull: rrrmmm-brrmmmh, kicking over strong. Sally and Simon came aboard. And as Max turned the throttle, they went wailing away.
“The place where she’s camping is a backwater up the river,” Simon explained as they motored at full speed. “Out on a point there’s an old house, supposedly built in Washington’s and Jefferson’s day. The land has been sinking for over a century, and the house was partly submerged during hurricane Jeanne. You can’t drive there. The girl gets her supplies by canoe. We’re told that she’s in deep depression.”
They made the trip quickly. And yes, the huge old house was definitely flooded. Staring at those ruins, Max neglected to idle the engine. He had to jam his foot against the house’s brick foundation to stop the rushing dinghy. The shock jolted his whole body. He thought his boot had kicked his brains out.
But they were there. Changing into the bathing-suits they’d brought, they went into the water and then into the house. Sally and Simon found and packed up a lot of handwritten and printed papers. Then on the second floor Max found a dark-haired girl, wearing nothing but an old rug she’d pulled over her alluring body. She seemed unconscious. Was she alive?
Yes. When Max lifted her, limp and beautiful, she stirred. “We can take you to an apartment near Washington, D.C,” Max said. “You can get medical help.”
She made no answer except to whisper something about a canoe. “We can tow that,” Max said.
In the days that followed Claire seemed to recover her physical strength at the complex where she and Max had apartments. Max was enthralled by this mysterious girl. As they walked one evening along a nearby beach,” she said, “Thank you for rescuing me,” hugging Max as they stood by the water. “And for not asking questions.”
“I don’t want to inquire,” Max said. “But your life has certainly been amazing.”
She laughed. “My breakdown? It was simple and silly. I liked a guy a lot and I thought I helped him. Then he robbed me and dumped me. I shouldn’t have cared. But the whole world flamed like hell and I blanked out.”
Max smiled and said abruptly, “I’m crazy about you, Claire.” And Claire smiled back.
Though Max never questioned Claire, Sally and Simon wanted to know her whole story. “Claire,” Sally said one evening as they all four walked along the shore, “I’m publishing a book, and I want it to feature you and your ideas. But tell me, do you know Richard Vlass?”
Claire turned a whiter shade of pale. But she said nothing.
“Claire,” Sally said,”among the papers you had when we found you there’s an art-history article you wrote. Your university published It in 2013, and it includes the words: ‘Monet digitized Manet’. One of Richard Vlass’s books written in 2015 repeats that sentence exactly. Those three words are the smoking gun. But there are many other parts of your college papers very similar to ideas published by Vlass later.”
Now Claire seemed to hang her head. “I told Rich my ideas about Romanticism, then Realism, then Modernism.”