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SUNDAY IN THE LOUVRE WITH LISA.Another scorching day in Paris, ninety- five degrees Fahrenheit, no hint of a breeze, no hope of a shower. The air was close, the sun so blazing that even the carriage horses were wearing straw hats. For more than fifty days, temperatures had rarely dropped below ninety degrees. The country beyond Paris was burning. Thatch- roofed farmhouses and acres of parched forest had become tinder, and spontaneous- combustion fires broke out near Poitiers, Orléans, and Beaumont, Albertville, Dijon, and Fontainebleau.
Within the galleries of the Louvre Museum, even in the late afternoon of August 20, the heat was a physical presence so overwhelming that it trivialized four thousand years of art and history. Maximilien Alphonse Paupardin slumped on his stool in the doorway of the Salon Carré, as sated and overstuffed as a Rembrandt burgher. He was weighed down by the weather and by an unseasonable midday meal. In everything except name, Paupardin was a simple man who felt elevated in a uniform—first in an army uniform and now in the costume of a Louvre guard. A uniform gave him stature, confidence, a defined place in the world. Out of uniform, he felt diminished.
He was ignorant of the history that surrounded him. He knew nothing of the medieval knights in suits of mail who had staved off Anglo- Norman invaders from the parapets of Fortress Louvre or the lusty young kings, François I and Louis XIV, a Valois and a Bourbon respectively, who, imagining Paris as a new Rome, had turned the Louvre fortress into a palace fit for a Caesar. Paupardin knew only one emperor, the cocky little Corsican and epic pillager, Napoleon Bonaparte.
On an average day, several hundred visitors would traipse through the galleries—students, artists, foreign travelers, and Frenchmen from the provinces—but visitors were few on this Sunday afternoon at the end of summer. An occasional tourist had wandered through from the Grande Galerie, not staying long enough to arouse the guard’s interest or register in his memory. He stirred on his stool, his nap arrested.
Had a ripple of gas disturbed him, his midday meal returning? Did he catch a sudden whiff of oleander or hear an alien sound? He raised an eyelid. Three “macaroni” were whispering together. The old guard glanced at them with disdain. They were dressed in their Sunday best, black suits and straw boaters, but no suit could disguise what they were—young working- class men who had immigrated to Paris from the mountain towns of northern Italy looking for work and, more often than not, finding trouble.
There was one other visitor. The boy had returned with flowers. A young Goethe enamored of all things Italian. The guard recognized him, a quintessential German, hair flaxen, eyes ice blue, warmed now by the lust to possess the dark lady. He mooned over her, gazing into her liquid eyes, and she seemed to answer. Eyes are the mirror of the soul, her creator, Leonardo da Vinci, believed.
Men had been coming to court her for years, bearing flowers, notes, and poems that Paupardin scooped up and tossed out at the end of the day. She accepted their attentions democratically but gave nothing in return, just the same half- smile. She conferred it on all equally. A promise, a tease, a warning. No man could be sure. The lovesick boy would return the next day and the day after.
Like rival lovers paying suit, the three olive- skinned men watched the German. Bemused? Mocking? Wary? Their faces gleamed as if in rapture, features shining and dissolving in a heat so oppressive that, if The Victory of Samothrace were sculpted of wax, it would dissolve like the wings of Icarus. The flowers the boy proffered were already wilting.
Paupardin saw the visitors without seeing them, as he saw the paintings without seeing them, the masterpieces of the Louvre collection, each in its place, unchanged for decades. He was anticipating the next day, Monday, his day of rest, when the museum was closed for cleaning and the staff reduced.
The old guard pulled a soiled handkerchief from his pocket to mop his face, and caught her watching him. She was smiling as if she knew he had overindulged at noon and dozed on the job. It was the disconcerting smile of a mother or a mistress. He wiped his face to blot her out and sighed with resignation.
There were no youngsters among the custodians who guarded the patrimony of France. Age and lethargy were job requirements. Only retired noncommissioned officers of the French army could apply to be guards at the Musée du Louvre. The country they had served allowed them one final tour of duty before relegating them to permanent pasture and probable penury. This was their last shuffle, and ambitions rarely if ever strayed beyond a good meal, an afternoon nap, or perhaps a few moments with a grandchild.
The guard shifted his substantial weight on the insubstantial stool and repressed a belch, regretting his choice of cassoulet, a dinner suitable for a winter Sunday, not the doldrums of August. The afternoon meandered in half- time. By four o’clock, when the bell clanged signaling the museum’s closing, the “macaroni” and the young Goethe had disappeared.
Paupardin picked up the oleander and folded his stool. The Grande and Petite Galeries emptied, footsteps echoing, the many doors banging shut. Outside the Louvre, Paris shimmered in the glaze of heat. In the Tuileries Gardens just beyond, a halfhearted game of boule was ending.
Summer is not a popular season in Paris. Average August temperatures chase rich and poor to the vineyards of the Loire valley and the cooling beaches of Normandy. This August was the worst that Parisians forced by one circumstance or another to remain in town could remember in a dozen years. The heat wave had hung on for weeks. Less than one millimeter of rain had fallen in Paris during the entire month, and in a single day, four people had collapsed with sunstroke. At six o’clock, it was still ninety- one degrees. The cafés of Pigalle were deserted. The Seine stood still. Along its banks, the sheltering plane trees and chestnut trees drooped.
Night like liquid velvet settled over the mansard roofs, innocent, if a night is ever innocent. A night is young but never innocent, and as Sunday merged with Monday and the city awakened to a new day, the game that would stun Paris and astound the world was afoot.
No one would notice for more than twenty- four hours.
From the Hardcover edition.