"Édouard!" A voice coughed the word into the gloom, but for the moment the three could only see a vague outline of a form.
"Berthe! Is that you?" The painter cried, his alarm plain in the tone of his voice.
More coughs and then a woman emerged from the shadows. She was clad all in black—perhaps her clothes had not been black before the fire, but they certainly were now. In her hands she clutched a small bouquet of violets. "I hid in the pantry while the fire raged on. What on earth caused it?"
"Berthe! You are all right!" Manet grabbed the woman and embraced her. The lion and the alchemist looked on nonplussed.
"Yes, yes, of course."
Manet leaned back and glared at his friend. "But what were you doing in the house?!"
Berthe laughed. "You did invite me here, Édouard."
"But you were supposed to be out! You might have been killed." Manet reached up to wipe away some of the soot from her cheek.
"I had a wonderful idea for the portrait," she said, holding up the violets. "Just the right touch of colour, a fine counterpoint to the black."
"Good idea!" Manet nodded.
"I don't mean to interrupt," the lion said at last, "But shall we go see how the rest of the house has withstood the damage? There were some paintings, I believe."
"My apologies!" the painter replied, looking flustered. "I forgot in the excitement of seeing my friend. We should look upstairs—"
"Why look upstairs?" Berthe asked.
"Well, I'm afraid that's where the explosion happened," Manet said shrugging.
"Hold on a moment, mon ami. You caused this conflagration?!" Berthe's expression looked considerably less happy.
"Well, I'm not certain about it," Manet said, his face suddenly sheepish. "It may have been my attempt to make a new colour…"
"A new colour?!" Berthe slapped her forehead. "Again?!"
Eduardo laughed. If you have not seen a Venetian lion really laugh, you cannot image the extraordinary mirth it conveys. In the midst of a smoke shrouded house, the laughter had a most peculiar quality like a crocus poking through the snow. "Burnt sienna?" the lion asked once he had stopped laughing.
Manet drew himself up. "Burnt amber. It would have a richness that mere amber could not hold a candle to!"
"Perhaps you could call it 'burnt house' instead!" The lion threw his head back and laughed all the more.
"Well, heavens," Berthe said trying not to show her amusement, "Do let us go see if any our paintings remain."
"Some I carried outside," Manet said, an edge of irritation creeping into his voice. "I did not forget duty."
"My grain field?!" Berthe said, clutching his arm.
"Yes, yes, it's all right."
"Let's go look upstairs," Maggiormente urged. "I am accustomed to explosions. I will be happy to go first." The truth was that the alchemist had become bored by all this talk of painting. He had a notoriously short attention span when it came to subjects that were not alchemy. Indeed he was already thinking about how the burning of amber might provide a useful reagent for some distilling work that was in the back of his mind as something to pursue once he had knocked this fuel experiment on the head.
He turned and headed toward the narrow stairs visible across the room. After a moment, Eduardo padded after him, muttering darkly but making no definite arguments against the venture.
"Careful, monsieur!" Manet cried, but the two were already climbing the stairs gingerly.
The two painters exchanged a look. Berthe shrugged. "Why not?"
In a moment all four launched themselves up the stairs with careful steps as the blackened wood creaked.
The air on the next floor remained filled with smoke. "Is there a window we can open?" Maggiormente asked the painters.
Berthe nodded and stepped across the floor. In a moment she had thrown up the sash and the smoke began to escape, clearing the air somewhat.
"Oh dear!" Manet cried. "Look! How horrible!" They all turned where he pointed.