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The Big House

    * John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882)*

 (Born a cosmopolite, French painter Sargent's oil paintings were suffused with a feel of high-brow urbanity. Loneliness and claustrophobia, however, seep in from time to time throughout his oevure when the sparseness of mankind takes over the focus of the expansiveness of space. Whenever seeing a restricted space in a painting it always pricks my curiosity of what lies beyond the frame. And thus in my head the house and the room are imaginatively expanded, but always the room in the picture stays the same, as if the room itself could engulf all of the expansions. We always have that grand house within us; the house which only lends glance of one room but leaves the others shrouded in mystery.)

The adults left their children and went to the party so the kids could only entertain themselves by playing in the drawing room. The loftiness of the room was oppressive. One could not stay in it without feeling its looming presence descending upon him like clouds of smoke. Even the china vases were looming, standing obstructively at every turn of the corner. One of the girls inclined her back against the surface of the vase and immediately a cold shiver ran down her spine; the hostility of the vase was thus keenly felt. The slant of light diminished bit by bit, no sooner would the little girls witness a trail of it slipping away out of the window, so would the glints in their eyes, albeit how burningly they sometimes shone.

And no sooner would night fall. I touched the wooden wardrobe and felt something slowly unravel from underneath. I disliked anything that was not unquestionably concrete, as if the walls would suddenly collapse on us and we would be forgotten for good, like a cluttered pile of dusts eventually swept and herded into the corners of the room. But even if we did disappear in the end the house still stood. This grand house, always assumed a solemn air, soundlessly and soullessly when seeing from without, even when within every room is packed full with people. Yes. From where the girls and I were situated we could still hear momentarily some faint ring and clang in other rooms. In an eventless day like this when the adults all ventured out for fun, the house was however never still.

Every room was resonated with sleepless spirits and throbbed with ceaseless sounds. Sometimes it always seemed as if a ball had just taken place, and the trail of the elegant music left an alluring afterglow in every room. All rooms seemed alive saved that of the drawing room the girls were commanded to stay. As noticed by one of the girls, no matter how shrilly they shouted the strident noise ceased the moment they mouthed their howl; the house itself commanded them to stay sotto voce. The youngest played noiselessly with a doll found in the room. The doll stayed in a posture of ecstasy, hands reaching heavenward beseeching for the mercy of God. The little girl could not bend down the doll’s hands so she could only cradle it gently in her arms and run her fingers through its sandy hair.

I announced to the girls- most of them staring at me with consternation- that we might be left alone again tonight; alone in this grand house. We were only left alone once but the memory failed us as it happened when we had yet gained knowledge. Waves of fear and excitement attacked me once I finished the announcement. No. I should not show my fear. To reassure the dejected girls I made with my hands a sweeping gesture around the room- we would be safe as long as the house was with us. And we in this house where nothing eventful could have happened. We could feel the enormity of the house gradually reduced to minutiae and infused with our souls. Once the house was within us we became the architects of the house; we built it, the house.


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