Dressed, ready, Théodore Géricault waited in a state of dread for the arrival of his uncle. He knew that soon the shiny black landau would appear along the avenue of chestnut trees, beneath all their dark green magnificence and white candle blooms.
Always it was the same, like a scene in a play enacted over and over again for all eternity. The coachman guiding his team of six bays at a decorous pace; then his uncle stepping from the equipage, manner patrician, imperial, extending a hand to assist his lovely young wife.
Géricault stood in the doorway and greeted his patron and benefactor with a sly sycophant's smile, unable to look his aunt in the eye, yet trembling with desire to kiss her gloved hand.
As always, supper would be interminable, tense with suppressed longing.
Géricault led the way to the dining room, and they took their places at the polished oak table: Charles Caruel in the honored position at the head, flanked on either side by his wife and his nephew. A maid lit the candelabra and closed the French doors overlooking the terrace; a chilly dew had descended, and the twilight sky was darkening with fast scudding clouds.
Géricault watched his uncle pour Alexandrine's wine, select the choicest morsels for her plate. How he fussed. She submitted to her husband's attentions like the perfect child bride, remonstrating in the prettiest way that indeed she could not eat another morsel. A sight to set his teeth on edge. Seated in a straight-backed chair, Alexandrine folded her hands in her lap, modest, wifely, with an expression of demure saintliness; butter would not melt in her mouth that pouting, waiting mouth. At times, Géricault felt himself diminished by this woman's poise and sophistication. Here was a hothouse orchid, destined for a life of elegance and ease that only the self-assured possessed. You could see it in the languor of her slender wrists, the way she arranged her hair in loose lazy coils that would cost a fortune to affect. The clothes she boldly wore. Cut in the latest fashion, those free-flowing gowns so cruelly unbecoming to many who thronged the king's court shimmied from his aunt's shoulders with a fascinating grace. Yet there was no attempt at artifice in Alexandrine's allure. If anything, she magnified her beauty by not giving it a single thought.
Always when jealousy began to growl, Géricault found himself hating this uncle of his. He wanted to look at him and see a very monster, rouge and powder smoothing withered skin, the thin arch of his eyebrows penciled in, leering and winking at Alexandrine, who had to avert her face from the stench of his breath. Instead, there he sat, elegant, his silver hair neatly coiffed and perfumed with citrus pomade. When once again Caruel graced him with an affectionate smile, Géricault discerned in his features the piercing cornflower-blue eyes, the fine slightly hooked nose an echo of his dead mother's beautiful face.
Géricault felt the pressure of Alexandrine's foot against his. He feigned to drop his serviette and, in retrieving it, managed to stroke her ankle. She lifted her gown, and his fingers rasped the white silk of her stocking. It had been a month since he had touched that smooth supple flesh. He inhaled the scent of her, attar of roses, a hint of cloves, perhaps, before straightening up, flushed and nervously dabbing his lips with the serviette.
They glanced at each other across the table and then away again.
The strain was wearing him out. Young, gifted gentleman artist! How could he paint with a clear head and steady hand when he found himself pacing back and forth at night, even leaving his bedroom door ajar, hoping for he knew not what that which could never happen lying restlessly awake until dawn, praying to hear carriage wheels along the drive, the quick steps of a footfall. In the early hours, feverish with desire, he longed for his uncle's wife, the dark silhouette of her body outlined through her chemise. How lovely Alexandrine was, naked and in bed.
The moment this thought flared in Géricault's mind, he found his uncle staring at him with an inquiring expression.
"Do give us an account of your trip to Rome," Caruel said, taking a delicate sip from his glass. "You must have been inspired by the grand masters. Tell us what you are working on now."
Géricault could not bring himself to meet his uncle's steady, trusting gaze. Instead he hunched over his plate. Lately he was beginning to notice something furtive in his own gestures, which he did not like.
What could he say to his uncle, when each morning he had woken wanting to work, yet the more opportunity he had, the less he achieved, beginning a hundred projects that he never finished, and finally doing nothing in a mood of exhaustion. He had been naive to think a self-imposed exile in Rome might have helped.
"For my next composition, honored uncle," he replied, "I have in mind a crowd scene as witnessed at the Roman carnival, using as a central motif the riderless Barberi horses."
He could not go on. He felt too fraudulent. Caruel the cuckold, eagerly expectant, beaming encouragement. And all the while Alexandrine's slippered caress rose higher and higher.
Géricault struggled to continue. "Perhaps I'll begin by recording the start of the race, the athletes fighting to restrain the horses just as I saw it in the Piazza del Popolo which I could transform into a colonnaded forum suggestive of ancient rather than modern Rome."
"Splendid, dear fellow," Caruel exclaimed. "We shall look forward to seeing the finished tableau. Won't we, my pretty one?"
Alexandrine nodded and stifled a yawn.
Géricault tried to ignore her slipper nudging his thigh.
All afternoon, he had forced himself to remain calm and organize his thoughts. He knew he should tell Alexandrine it was over. He could have written a letter. But the minute he dipped the pen in ink, he found himself anticipating a furtive encounter that would vanish in an instant, and calculating every possibility he might have of saying two or three private words to her at supper that evening.
Géricault watched Alexandrine's long slim fingers toy with the pearls of her necklace, an unconscious gesture that made him mad for her. He longed to unclasp the gold fastening at the nape of her neck, that delicate swanlike neck, so vulnerable, yet sinuous as a dancer's.
She gave him a sharp, searching look. "I hear the ladies in Rome are renowned for their beauty. Is that so?"
Now they were on dangerous ground, where promises and assurances might be exchanged in frivolous volleys of repartee.
Somehow he managed to address his mistress with a gallant half-bow. "Italian women are drab as sparrows in comparison with you, Madame."
"Well said, sir, well said indeed," Caruel declared, giving his wife an appraising glance. Alexandrine smiled, triumphant behind her fan, all the while pressing her foot hard against Géricault's thigh.
He flinched when Caruel leaned over and gave his wife a playful kiss on the cheek. With a proprietary gesture, he raised her hand to his lips. Submitting to his caresses, Alexandrine stared at Géricault with a disarming expression of mischievous amusement.
She's enjoying this, he thought, reveling in our deceit.
It began to rain steadily, sending chestnut leaves scattering across the lawns, splashing against the flagstone terrace like an accusation, a portent.
Signaling for his glass to be refilled, Caruel announced that tonight he had a proposition to make. He drained the wine, and Géricault watched a flush of claret rise in his cheeks.
"I would like another portrait, dear nephew." He turned to his wife. "Does that please you, my dearest?"
How could he not know? Or was this some test, a trap? Géricault glanced in wonder at Alexandrine, who looked lovingly into her husband's eyes and effortlessly deceived him.
How cruel it was to know that his uncle's commissions allowed him to paint a detailed inventory of every part of Alexandrine, her arms flailing the morning air, rumpled sheets twisted beneath one fist, the curve of her throat before she uttered those sharp mewling cries that he had to suppress with his hand.
The pressure of Alexandrine's foot became unbearable. He dared not look at her. Just once and he'd be undone.
Mercifully Alexandrine excused herself and left the room.
Caruel leaned back in his chair with a self-satisfied air.
"Tell me," he said, swirling the last dregs of wine in his glass. "Am I not a lucky man?"
Géricault gave a mumbled assent, conscious of a guilty blush to the roots of his hair.
"Your father crams his life with business speculations when, like me, he should find himself a pretty young wife. Not that your mother wasn't a fine upright woman. Mark my words, she was."
Géricault could not think of a reply. He knew he was in danger of disgracing the family's reputation and denigrating the memory of his poor tubercular mother.
"And you, Théodore? No conquests in Rome?"
Appalled, Géricault stared at his plate. A terrible anguish constricted his soul.
"Oh, I know, still so shy, dear boy. In time you'll grow out of it. But surely in Italy there must have been some dalliance, some amour?"
Now Caruel had a foxy glint to his eye, beseeching his nephew to regale him with talk of conquests and the brothel, at last. He had long voiced his concern in no uncertain terms. "Make hay, boy, while the sun shines. Christ knows what your father will say if you don't turn out a ladies' man. And I'll be blamed for encouraging you to become an artist, even if I did persuade your father that my dear sister never wanted you apprenticed in the family tobacco firm."
Once again Géricault found himself weaving a web of lies. Not a natural dissembler no one who blushed as readily as he could ever deceive with the skill that was required he steeled himself to entertain Caruel with bawdy tales of the bordello and desire: seducing contessas in the cool sandstone shade of summer houses on the outskirts of town, skylarks bursting their song in the clear blue air; a young widow wandering the empty echoing rooms of a villa once owned by the Medicis; and how could he ever forget a watermelon seller proffering her wares on the Spanish Steps, who, when he embraced her, tasted of strawberries; or the febrile prowling of his landlady in his lodgings at the Via S. Isidoro, a scent of marsala and laudanum on her breath.
"Capital," Caruel cried in delight. "Tell me more."
To his disgust, in recounting these fictional couplings, Géricault felt himself stir. Still Alexandrine had not returned to the dining room.
Rain streamed in rivulets against the French doors. How much longer must he go on? Who else, he thought, could I have fucked in Rome?
Finally, Caruel peered into his empty glass. "I say, nephew, how about a splash of brandy to toast your new commission."
"Trust me, sir," Géricault replied, springing with relief to his feet. "I'll return with the very best my cellar has to offer."
Trust, he'd said trust. Shamefaced, he headed for the door.
"And if you see her," his uncle called, "shoo in my silly goose of a wife. What can she be doing in the privy that long?"
Géricault glanced back at him. As always after one of his cook's rich meals, Caruel closed his eyes and began to doze.
Géricault hurried along the corridor. A hand caught the sleeve of his jacket. Alexandrine pushed him into the windowed alcove of the hall.
"I knew you'd come back," she whispered, arms twined around his neck. "Imagine the luxury of spending hours together every day for weeks at a time. As for the portrait, you can compose it later, from memory, like the others."
He listened to Alexandrine's voice, scheming, triumphant, telling him that she'd arrange for Louisette, the silliest of all maids, to chaperone her to his studio, where she would bribe and dizzy the girl's mind with a promised pouch of centimes and send her packing to purchase all manner of fripperies at the Montmartre fair. Nothing would make Louisette miss such an outing.
At this, Alexandrine tousled his hair and treated him to her theatrical laugh, which he was beginning to fear.
"Caruel's credulity knows no bounds," she said, covering his cheeks and throat with her kisses. "He actually believes the air of Montmartre brings light and color to my eyes and skin, when it's the folly of our passion that enfevers my complexion."
Géricault felt the heat of her breath on his. He found himself tearing at her gown, his hands riffling the crisp folds of her petticoats. To be discovered taking her against the wall like this, as if she were no more than a common whore! But he had to confess, the thought of Alexandrine straddling some bare-arsed youth in a vile alley, the exchange of coarse words, a slap, perhaps, her chemise ripped from her shoulders, or stripped bare but for her boots, and a jeering crowd of men jostling, watching, waiting their turn these images set him shuddering.
Beneath swaths of lace, his fingers twined and loosened the ribbons of her culottes.
Géricault lifted his mistress, light as a child in his arms. She clung to him, her thighs about his hips.
At last he could grasp the warmth of her flesh, and she, bucking the empty air, held him tight and tighter still. Afterward, spent, panting like a savage, Géricault heard the sound of footsteps. He recognized the ambling tread of the cook, La Motte. Alexandrine loosened her grip on his shirt. Hurriedly they arranged their rumpled clothes.
"Return to my uncle," he whispered. Would Caruel notice the creases in her gown, her lips flushed crimson?
On his way to the cellar, he saw La Motte, standing hands on hips at the foot of the stairs and glaring at Alexandrine, who scurried ahead. As he passed, she gave him a baleful glance and clicked her tongue.
Copyright © 2005 by Arabella Edge