‘You wish me to spell it out, Sophia?’
‘Sophie.’ My jaw had become so tight. ‘My name is Sophie. And, yes, please do spell it out, Madame.’
‘I’m so sorry if this is indelicate.’ She smiled prettily. ‘But … you must know that you are not the first of Édouard’s models he … has had relations with.’
‘I don’t understand.’
She looked at me as if I were stupid. ‘The women on his canvases … There is a reason Édouard gets the images he does, of such delicacy and power, the reason he is able to portray such … intimacy.’
I think I knew then what she was about to say, but I stood there and let the words fall around me, like the blades of little guillotines.
‘Édouard is a man of swift and unpredictable passions. When he tires of the novelty of being married, Sophia, he will return to his old ways. If you are a sensible girl, and I’m sure you are, given your … shall we say practical? ‒ background, I would advise you to look the other way. A man like that cannot be confined. It is against his artistic spirit.’
I swallowed. ‘Madame, I have prevailed upon your time long enough. I’m afraid we must part company here. Thank you for your … advice.’
I turned and walked away, her words ringing in my ears, my knuckles white with the effort of not hitting something. I was halfway to rue Soufflot before I discovered I had left the bag that contained the onions, cabbage and cheese sitting on the ground by the stall.
Édouard was out when I returned. It was no great surprise: he and his dealer would generally retreat to a nearby bar and conduct their business over glasses of pastis, or if it grew late, perhaps even absinthe. I dropped the basket with my purse and the jar of foie gras in the kitchen area and walked through to the washstand, where I splashed my flushed cheeks with cold water. The girl who gazed back at me from the looking-glass was a sombre creature, her mouth set in a thin line of anger, her pale cheeks lit with colour. I tried to smile, to make myself the woman Édouard saw, but she wouldn’t come. I could see only this thin, watchful woman, whose happiness felt suddenly as if it were built on shifting sands.
I poured myself a glass of sweet wine, and drank it swiftly. And then I had another. I had never in my life drunk in the daytime before. Having grown up around my father and his excesses, I had had little appetite for drink until I met Édouard.
As I sat there in the silence I kept hearing her words: He will return to his old ways. The women on his canvases … there is a reason Édouard gets the images he does …
And then I hurled the glass at the wall, my cry of anguish carrying over the sound of the splintering glass.
I cannot say how long I lay on our bed, lost in silent misery. I did not want to get up. My home, Édouard’s studio, no longer felt like our little haven. I felt as if it had been invaded by the ghosts of his past liaisons, was coloured with their talk, their looks, their kisses.
You must not think like this, I scolded myself. But my mind careered around like a runaway horse, headed in new and terrible directions, and I could not rein it in.
It had begun to grow dark, and outside I could hear the man who lit the streetlamps singing softly under his breath. It was a sound I used to find comforting. I got up, vaguely planning to clear up the broken glass before Édouard returned. But instead I found myself walking towards his canvases, which were stacked along the far wall. I hesitated in front of them, then began to pull them out, gazing at each one. There was Laure Le Comte, the fille de rue, wearing a green serge dress, another of her naked, leaning against a pillar like a Greek statue, her br**sts small and upright like halves of Spanish peaches; Emmeline, the English girl from the Bar Brun, her bare legs twisted under her on the chair, her arm trailing along its back. There was an unnamed dark-haired woman, her corkscrew curls cascading over her bare shoulder as she reclined upon a chaise-longue, her eyes drooping as if from sleep. Had he lain with her too? Had her slightly parted lips, painted so lovingly, been awaiting his? How could I have thought him immune to that silky, exposed flesh, those artfully crumpled petticoats?
Oh, God, I had been such a fool. Such a provincial fool.
And there, finally, was Mimi Einsbacher, leaning towards a looking-glass, the curve of her bare back perfectly outlined by the unforgiving corset below it, the slope of her shoulder a pale invitation. It was lovingly drawn, his charcoal line a flowing, sympathetic thing. And it was unfinished. What had he done after he had drawn this far? Had he walked up behind her, placed those great hands on her shoulders and lowered his lips to the place where her shoulder met her neck? The place that always made me shiver with longing? Had he laid her gently on that bed – our bed – murmured soft words and pushed her skirts up until she –
I balled my fists in my eyes. I felt unhinged, a madwoman. I had never even noticed these paintings before. Now each one felt like a silent betrayal, a threat to my future happiness. Had he lain with them all? How long before he did it again?
I sat staring at them, hating each one and yet unable to tear away my eyes, inventing whole lives of secrets and pleasures and betrayals and whispered nothings for each of them, until the skies outside were as black as my thoughts.
I heard him before I saw him, whistling as he came up the stairs.
‘Wife!’ he cried, as he opened the door. ‘Why are you sitting in the dark?’
He dropped his great coat on the bed and made his way around the studio, lighting the acetylene lamps, the candles that were wedged in empty wine bottles, wedging his cigarette into the corner of his mouth as he adjusted the drapes. And then he walked up to me and wrapped his arms around me, squinting in the half-light better to see my face.
‘It is only five o’clock. I was not expecting you yet,’ I felt as if I had woken from a dream.
‘So soon after we are married? I couldn’t leave you for long. Besides, I missed you. Jules Gagnaire is no substitute for your charms.’ He pulled my face gently to his and tenderly kissed my ear. He smelt of cigarette smoke and pastis. ‘I cannot bear to be away from you, my little shop girl.’
‘Don’t call me that.’
I stood up and walked away from him, through to the kitchen area. I felt his gaze, faintly bemused, after me. In truth I didn’t know what I was doing. The bottle of sweet wine was long empty. ‘You must be hungry.’
‘I’m always hungry.’