Or, five conquests.
The days are long, but she is patient. She never lacks for adoration, or for love.
Another student, copying the masters with her head bowed and her fingers steady. Their ideals have changed but their methods have not.
She concentrates on the Christ aux Limbes with singular determination. Self-taught, or largely so, to judge by her technique. But promising. Every day, she sits facing the Christ, her back resolutely turned. Sometimes, her eyes flicker between the crowding tourists. It’s a mere fraction of a second, a gaze quickly readjusted. It’s enough for a beginning.
Victorine, she calls. Victorine.
Her head jerks up, she looks around for the voice that called her. Shakes her head, returns to sketching.
Come here, Victorine. I have much to show you. She hungers for the artist’s gaze, for the intensity of the eyes and the trembling in the hands. This one holds so much promise.
Victorine does not respond, not that day nor the next. But she sits less sharply angled, and lets her gaze linger when it wanders. Her fingers on her charcoal grow more relaxed, her lines more sweeping. The picture is not so much the Christ as the impression of it. She adds in the people in the gallery, the quality of the light.
Yes, she says. Yes.
On the day Victorine completes her sketch, the gallery is nearly empty. Near closing, she puts her materials away and comes to stand before her.
“You have a story to tell,” murmurs Victorine.
He falls in love with her not over long hours staring at her, waiting for her to return his gaze, but in an instant.
He’s bored when he walks in, trailing after a serious woman with a map. “Mom, please. I’m starving. Can we just go eat?”
“After this room. This is a very important room.”
“They’ve all been very important.”
They circulate, she staring at the paintings with the air of one apprising fame and confirming it in her mind. He is fascinated by the reclining nude of the Pastorale.
When his head turns and he sees her, his eyes go wide. His gaze drops sheepishly to the wall, but they refuse to rest there. She won’t be denied.
“Olympia is a very important work,” lectures his mother. She details the history, so dry and academic sounding. The history of the Venuses, the Odalisques, and she, the demimondaine.
Are we so different, Venus and I? she asks. Henry blinks, starts, but keeps silent.
His mother goes on. No word of the tenderness and agony of her creation; there’s no living soul who remembers that. She alone remembers; to the few who can hear her--who love her--she imparts the story. She takes life from the telling.
“It feels like she’s watching me,” he says.
Perhaps I am.
He guards the night, walking among them like a man at church. He passes in front of her often, and his presence is how she counts the watches of the night. Of all their guards, he best understands the secrets they keep.
He speaks to them, or to himself, sometimes. At school, aspiring beyond the dead watch, to law. He speaks to her most of all. Calls her lovely and strange. There are walls up in his mind, that prevent him from seeing past the paint and canvas and into the living soul. But they shiver against her, and the foundations crumble night by night.
“There’s something very odd about you,” he says one night. His fifth pass around the floor; soon it will be dawn and he will take his leave and be replaced by the deaf crowds and the dull guards.
Indeed, she replies.
He blinks, surprised but not undone by it. “I think I need to get more sleep if you’re talking to me now.”
And if I have always spoken, and you only now have cared to listen?
He glances around. “I didn’t realize you had anything to say.”
A mistake. A common one, but a mistake nonetheless.
He pauses, sits.
Let me tell you a story.
He is the first. An artist in his own right,he gazes at her first with painterly appraisal. But because he is truly an artist, on his third visit he apprehends her where she hides behind the layers of paint.
“Ah,” he says. Truly Edouard has created a marvel, he says to her.
Am I not myself marvellous?
Edouard draws him into conversation, and his reply dies as his attention is taken elsewhere.
After that, Claude visits frequently. He criticizes the harshness of the line; Edouard retaliates that at least she is not seen through a fog. They bicker, each with one eye on her, on her naked breasts and hidden sex.
“France must have her,” Claude says, and strokes the edge of her canvas gently. “You will be famous, my dear,” he says to her. “If I have to do it myself.”
“There’s fame enough. I presume you’ve seen the reviews?” says Edouard, his ill-temper hardly concealed.
“I’m organizing a subscription,” says Claude. “Whether you like it or not. She must go in the Louvre.”
Edouard grimaces when Claude touches her. Do not blame me for how you made me, my love, she says.
The world does not come to her all at once. It comes in pieces--first the light. For a long while, only the light and the darkness in alternation. Then sense and the outlines of forms. The brush, its tender caress over the forming hills and valleys of her. She comes to love the touch, though she does not know the hand.
Finally, a face: his, peering, critical. She knows him on sight; she has already known his touch.
He spends long hours just gazing at her, in admiration and frustration, twirling his brush between his fingertops. “You lack something,” he says. There is an upwelling in her of things she cannot express, of thoughts unformed.
He adjusts deepens shadows, adjusts colours. But mostly he stares, and sometimes he speaks.
His expectation is stifling.
One morning, after three adjustments so minor she barely feels them, he smokes two cigarettes in succession and grips her hard in frustration. “Why do you elude me?” he demands.
A reply forms; she speaks. I am as I was made.
There is a sound from him, a great outrushing of breath and tension and longing. He grips her tighter. “So you are complete,” he says softly.
After that, he rarely leaves her, and allows no one in. He sits by her for hours at a time, gazing at her. He tells her the story of her own creation, of the struggle to bring her into being. From him she learns speech, but says little.
“You will be mine forever,” he murmurs. “My perfect creation.”
His devotion is pure, but it offers little sustenance. He would consume her himself, swallow her whole with those eyes of his, like a flame burning her from the edges inward.
But she will outlast him. She knew from her first word she would persist beyond his flesh and blood, his groping fingers and probing eyes. The days are long, but she is patient.
To those who listen, she says this: He made me and yet I am my own.