3 Conversations

Monsieur Alphonse Monier, gentilhomme of Montmartre, regards the steps of his own property with trepidation. Dappled evening sunlight slants through the elms, and the ripe tang of the sewer proclaims high summer in this teeming city.

There is nothing for it. Monier must confront his tenant. He should never have let the store-house to an artist, not even to one who pays as handsomely and promptly as the strange young man who first called on him in the Autumn of 1817.

After a full minute's hesitation, the frock-coated visitor raps on the dark oak with the tip of his cane. There is a rattle of iron, and the door sighs inward. The porch frames an outlandish figure. His chemise is open to the waist; his head is shaven. There are coal-black streaks beneath his eyes and his knuckles are bound in muslin bandages. He wears a faint smile and might for all the world belong to an asylum.

Monier stifles a gasp and clutches his hat-brim to his breast. "Monsieur Savigny?" he ventures.

The inmate's smile becomes a grin. "Of course. I'd quite forgotten my name. Please enter, Monsieur Monier. This is your place, after all".

The light in the hallway is dim. The tenant pauses at the inner door, and turns to face his landlord.

"I wouldn't want you to be alarmed by what you find in the studio, Monsieur". The young man's tone is measured. "Are you prepared? I'm guessing this is why you've come?"

Monier clears his throat, trying to identify the disconcerting odour that hangs in the gloom. "Some patrons at the Salon bade me take a look at what you are doing here", he replies. The effort of sounding unconcerned is palpable.

"Ah, yes. The Salon". The young man shrugs. "Did they perhaps tell you who Savigny really is?"

Monier shakes his head, whimpering as the perspiration flies from his brow.

"Savigny was one of the fifteen. He remembers everything, but the only thing that disturbs him is the butterfly. It settled on their makeshift sail, you see, right at the very end. And instead of realising that salvation must be nearby, Savigny plucked it off, and he ate it".

The landlord squeaks softly, cornered in the darkness with this madman. "Monsieur...", he begins.

The young man adds his name, but it is a grand one, and the flustered Monier fails to catch it. The surname sounds a little like 'Jericho'.

"As in walls and trumpets?" suggests the older man, hopefully.

The tenant throws back his head and laughs. He flings open the inner door. Then as his visitor tiptoes inside, he sweeps aside the drapes, and the red light of the evening conjures a vision of Hell.

"Dear Mother of God!" wails the gentilhomme, crossing himself furiously.

This vast space is decked with dismembered limbs, with glistening corpses. They sprawl on pallets and on staging in contorted attitudes. The smell is unearthly. All around, linen is stretched across rough easels, and charcoal and ochre sketch images of death.

"Don't worry; they're wax", grins the young man. "Or at least most of them are". As an afterthought, he gestures towards the far end of the hall, and adds : "I think this is what really upsets your friends".

The tenant approaches a high, curtained structure, and takes the cord which hangs from its upper frame between his bandaged fingers. He twists it thoughtfully.

"Horse bite", he says matter-of-factly, noticing that Monier is staring at his hand.

"Imagine you're the hero, Perseus", the young man continues, lunging with an imaginary sword. "Down beneath these crumbling flagstones is a vault. You descend the steps, your polished shield screening your eyes, squeezing past the tangled fig-roots. Here at the foot of the stair is a man, except he is not a man. He is a mass of ivy-clad chalk, stained by his corroded armour. And in the darkness beyond, there is a slithering and a hissing. Something seethes. Don't look at her, Monier! She will turn you into stone!"

And the young man tugs the cord, and the curtain falls to the floor, revealing a canvas of awesome size and power. The raft wallows in a boiling sea; the corpses from the studio are twisted among its thwarts. The living sprawl among the dead, desolate and distracted. They are bereft of all hope, save for the couple who have seen the sail.

Monier crosses himself again, and for some time he cannot speak. Finally, he manages to intone a single word. "Scandal", he breathes.

"That's what they say, is it?" barks the artist. "Yes, it is a scandal. But the raft, not the painting! You saw how I let slip the rope? That's what happened to these poor bastards. Some fine gentlemen loosed the ropes, and condemned them to this".

He is standing close to Monier now, towering over him and fixing him with his glare. The image of the raft behind him fills what remains of the landlord's field of vision. And Theodore Gericault begins to speak, in a voice which is cool and even and very terrible in its methodical metre. This grotesque place is turned to purgatory itself, and the quaking Monier is engulfed in the other man's torment.

"It's the 2nd of July, 1816", whispers the young man, "barely a year after our Glorious Emperor stumbled among the cowpats of Waterloo. A fine frigate out of Aix via Tenerife runs aground in fair weather and a calm sea on sandbars off the coast of Senegal. They are a paltry five miles from land, and the ship, though holed, is beached in shallows so benign that they could lie up here for days. Only they are commanded by an arrogant idiot, who got them into this mess through promoting another idiot above the experienced sailors who could actually navigate this vessel. Still, there are educated noblemen and military commanders here, so nothing more can very well go wrong, except that this is France, and intrigue and vanity and contradictory loyalties feed near-mutiny, until they decide against all logic to leave the ship. But now there are only four lifeboats, enough for only half of the ship's company, so they fashion a raft which will carry some one-hundred-and-fifty men, and they promise to tow it. Once the flotilla clears the bar, however, they find that the raft is waterlogged, floating chest-deep below the surface, and all the provisions are spilled and lost. The fine men panic in the lifeboats, or perhaps they reason that the rabble on the raft are mere troopers, and dispensable, and so one by one they let slip the f*****g ropes".

Monier is cowering now. The artist's speech remains deadly calm, but the intensity of his glare and the red glow of sunset through the windows of the store-house are like fire against the ice of his voice.

"Over the next few hours, people climb over one another, so that dozens drown at the bottom of the clawing pile. The next day a storm rises, sweeping more away, and then the sun comes out, and burns them all up. Little by little, the raft rises out of the sea, as its load of humanity is depleted, only this brings no respite, because the planking is now a griddle, and the salt-dashed wounds of these damned souls bake and fry. Those with the strength to fight, they fight, and they gouge each other and tear each other because they are desperate for the shade of another man's corpse, or maybe the shade of another man who is not quite yet a corpse. And they become delerious with thirst and sunstroke, and they literally scratch the dead men open and drink their blood and gnaw the juice from their flesh, and this goes on and on for days and days, until there are only fifteen left. And finally the butterfly settles, and Savingy snatches it and stuffs it into his mouth. He is too far gone to see the sail, or to acknowledge the ship that rescues them. He is so far gone that he will forever pray for forgiveness for the killing of a butterfly, and merely shrug when some horrified citizen asks if he ate man-meat, or why his body is too twisted to walk and his flesh is reduced to a disgusting mass of weals and sores".

There is a rumble of summer thunder in the distance, and it rings down a silence. The young man's glare seems interminable. Monier closes his eyes, and gags.

Gericault steps away and picks up the cord once more. Climbing the trestle, he raises the curtain and gently draws it over his awful canvas. He begins to speak, and the menace has evaporated. "I'll leave at the end of the week, Monsieur, as soon as the painting is collected for taking to the Salon. I'll pay you rent for the full month, and I'll clear all of this stuff away". He waves vaguely at his grisly array of models. "You can have your store-room back. Thank you for allowing me to use it".

Monier looks up. The young man is smiling again, and the wildness has gone from his eyes. He proffers a mug of wine.

"Frankly, it will be good to be rid of this curse. I can feel it lifting already. And please tell your friends that I make no political point here, and I do not claim my work to be a thing of beauty. It's just a shipwreck, pas qu'un naufrage. It got inside me when I met Savigny. I had to complete it to be rid of his pain, that's all".

"What will you do now?" Monier is surprised by the evenness of his own voice.

Gericault thinks for a moment, and then smiles his characteristic smile. "You know, I think I'll go and find a good horse, and ride him fast", he says.

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