Eden had been sleeping in her studio for three days when, home to collect her letters, she was surprised by a rather formal note, written in careful English, from Larousse, inviting her to come for tea in his studio. She wondered who else would be there and why Larousse would be entertaining in what Decker had described as such a small and inconvenient room at the top of so many flights of stairs, in such an unimpressive little street near the art school.
She wondered again, as she ascended those dark stairs that afternoon. The walls were unpapered, and not recently painted. Water stains and cobwebs indicated that the housekeeper—if there was one—had no regular habits. A tiny skylight above the stairwell allowed but a trickle of sun into the dim hall. Eden wondered how anything as nice as Decker described could be awaiting her in Larousse’s room.
But when she arrived at the top floor and Larousse opened the door, she saw that Decker had been right. Two exposed walls filled with clean windows—Larousse must wash them himself, she supposed—and a ceiling with two generous skylights made the small space a painter’s heaven. A narrow bed, a small desk, and a steamer trunk turned on end to serve as a wardrobe, were all the furniture besides a stool before Larousse’s easel and a table strewn with brushes and tubes and jars.
“Mademoiselle Smith—Bienvenu!” Larousse declared, taking Eden gently by the shoulders. She smiled and let him kiss her on either cheek. There was no one else there.
Larousse pointed to the bed and offered her a seat, pulling up the stool beside her. He had made a pot of tea already—Eden wasn’t sure how, there was no fire in the grate—and it stood on a tray with milk and sugar, three croissants and a lump of sweating butter.
She took a cup, took a croissant and said, “Decker was right, it’s a beautiful studio. How did you manage to find it? Those stairs…”
“It was luck,” Larousse said. “Those stairs, as you say…they do not make one expect such light.” He glanced around. “And the rent is a pittance. Which is good since I have only a pittance to offer.”
They chatted for a moment, then Eden stood. “Can I look at what you’re doing?” she asked.
“Of course,” Larousse waved an arm but didn’t rise himself. She walked about the room, looking at his latest work, some propped against the walls, some hanging on them. The lovely things Decker had said Larousse possessed looked, to Eden, to amount to a few vases, a replica bust of some Classical origin and a smattering of other painters’ pictures. These were namely, a small watercolor by Picasso, two Matisse prints and one of Eden’s desert landscapes in oil. She stopped before it and blushed, not wanting to turn and let her friend see her face. Hanging here, in Larousse’s own workroom, there was something embarrassing about the picture. She felt opened to inspection in a way that public exhibitions, dealers, critics had never opened her. They were strangers—the crowds at the shows, the critics and gallery men. They didn’t know her. They saw only pictures. But what did Larousse see? What, moreover could he have seen that would prompt him to part with his meager sous to hang her work in his room?
“Ah, oui—it is one of yours. You have found me out,” Larousse said.
“You might have just asked—you ought not to have paid for it,” Eden said.
“Not to have paid? Non, non—I had to pay. It had to be an act of sacrifice.”
Eden turned to face him across the little room. “Sacrifice?” Confusion crossed her brow.
Larousse stood. “I had the idea,” he said, taking a step towards her, “that I could offer it to you—as a proof.”
Eden’s brow was still knit. “A proof of what?”
Larousse took a step. He was still more than an arm’s length away, but close enough to meet her eye. “A proof of…” he glanced out the window a moment, almost as if checking to see that no one was looking in on them. “A proof of love.”
Eden blinked as if the sun had struck her eyes. “Love for…” For her work, she supposed. He meant of course, that he admired her work.
“For you, Miss Smith,” Larousse finished for her, still looking bravely into her face.
He stepped closer yet and took her hand.
“For me? Mais non, certainment tu ne…” Eden looked down at her hand in Larousse’s. He dropped it.
“Oui, pour tu,” was all he said.
“But Decker said Chloe—”
“Ah, Chloe. She likes to go around with me, but she and I have no understanding.”
“I didn’t think so.” Eden looked at him and lowered her voice. “In fact, I was sure that you… That you didn’t care for…marriage.”
“Marriage? I am not speaking now, of marriage, Miss Smith. I hope that does not offend you.”
“No, of course not. I only mean…” Eden took a breath and tried again. “I thought you didn’t care for women.”
They watched each other for a beat. Then Larousse turned, walked back to his stool and sat down. “I see,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Eden didn’t move from her spot by the picture.
“You are not right, but you are not wrong either. Chloe is a pretty girl but before I met you I had only ever really loved…other men. But you are not like any woman I have ever known, Mademoiselle Smith. You are extraordinary. You are the most courageous person I have ever met and your work is…” He stopped and considered a moment. “You said that we would need the best of the old traditions as well as the new ideas to move into the new century. That is you exactly. You are the best of both.” He said it again, more slowly: “the best of both.”
“I have never loved a man,” Eden told him quietly. “But there is someone I love.”
He looked at the window again. “La petite medecin?”
“And the two of you have…an understanding?”
Eden nodded again, unconsciously twisting Sophia’s ring on her finger. Larousse looked at her hands.
“I see,” he said. “Please forgive me. I had a stupid idea, I suppose.”
“It isn’t stupid. But it isn’t…” Eden stepped to the bed and sat beside him. She picked up his hand. “If I could love a man…” she began.
He took his hand away. “Non,” he said. “You cannot. It is the very thing I find so…” He shook his head.
“I am sorry,” Eden said again. “I like you so much, Michel.”
She had never used his Christian name before. He smiled dimly. “I am as foolish as Giles says I am.”
“Non. Tu es un genie—it’s Decker who is right about you—you are wonderful. You are a thousand years ahead of us all, fast as it feels we are moving.” She searched his face with earnest kindness. His eyes were full of sad thought. A curiosity rose within her and, in spite of herself, she found she was pulling him to her and kissing him with real passion.
“Ah, you had better go, Eden,” he whispered a moment later. And he showed her down the dark stairs and out the front door.