And found such fair assistance in my verse / . . . thou art all my art and dost advance / As high as learning my rude ignorance - William Shakespeare
“What?” Combeferre lifted his head from his book.
“Damn you!” Feuilly cursed him good naturedly, waving his pencil in admonishment.
“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t know you were drawing. I thought you had Lammenais.”
“Lammenais isn’t half so interesting as he thinks he is.”
Combeferre smiled - with his reserved nature, it could almost be consider a grin. “Very true. But I fear I am not a very good model.”
“You’re absolute rubbish,” Feuilly joked. “How can I draw you if you can’t even keep still when reading a book?”
“If it is stillness you are after, someone should draw you.”
Feuilly laughed. “As if. I’m the artist, not the model.”
“Why should you not be both?”
“And who would draw me?”
“Do I make a genteel portrait?”
“Not if I had my way.”
“I’m certainly not about to strip naked for an ill comparison to a Greek athlete.”
“That is not what I meant. Merely that you are far too interesting to be merely the subject of a genteel portrait.”
“That is all well-born girls can do, even if they paint limp flowers and chaste nymphs for a living.”
“I do not doubt that is true, though there have been women of talent. They are few, but perhaps it was too much to expect that Poland had produced one and set her in your lap.”
“Poland cannot produce much, torn apart as she is.”
“Let me draw you.”
“If there is no one else. But I would make a poor job of it.”
Any time Combeferre had yet said he would make a poor job of something, it had been because he was only marginally less brilliant at it than he was at everything else. He could not versify so well as Prouvaire, but Courfeyrac could not even invent bawdy rhymes on the spur of the moment. He had little musical talent of his own, but he could read music and at least hold pitch through a small range with a resonance that put Bahorel’s bellowing to shame. And though he often discounted his looks, he could attract a girl whenever he cared to, with the same frequency as Courfeyrac. For Combeferre to make a poor job of something was as much as an invitation to dare him to fail. With another man, one might consider it a trap, as with the card sharps in the cafés, but with all Combeferre’s gifts, such declarations could actually be considered modesty. It was too tempting to see in what way the result would succeed, so Feuilly told him, “Go on, then.”
It was awkward to sit unmoving whilst Combeferre watched him with such intensity. When he began to draw, it was not with confidence, but he seemed to hunch a bit less over the paper the longer he kept at it. But he kept at it a long time, which made Feuilly nervous. When at last he set down the pencil, Feuilly practically jumped to his side to see what the result had been.
It was hardly a poor job, though there was nothing finished about it. Combeferre drew schematically, white and open like Sophie but with a firmer hand to the line. It was a style far more suited to the anatomical diagrams for which it was used than to friendly portraiture, particularly in the strangely blunt way in which he rendered curves. Feuilly could not help taking up the pencil and rounding the curves and adding the shading he knew was necessary, even as he was uncertain what he himself must have looked like in that light.
“I told you I would make a poor job of it.”
“I did a hell of a lot worse when I was starting out,” Feuilly replied absently as he tried to add tone to his left cheek. “You’re too used to drawing fragments rather than the whole. It has to connect, to flow from one element to the other. You’ve let the skin confuse you. You can’t be afraid to make everything grey as long as you differentiate your greys. Making everything white is just as flat as making everything black.” He went on in this vein as he fixed the picture, explaining just where Combeferre had gone wrong. But the outline was more than good - it was what permitted a lark to become a lesson.
When the picture was finished to his satisfaction, he set down the pencil. “I should send you out as a drawing master,” Combeferre insisted.
Feuilly flushed. He had not intended the correction at all, really, and he certainly had not intended it to show off. “You had a very good master yourself.”
“I’ve had a better one tonight. I shall remember your advice when dissections begin again in the autumn.”
“Yes, you’ll waste it on parts and never again essay a whole.”
“But you won’t permit me to waste it, will you?”
“That is up to you. But I’m no model. You’ll have to find other victims.”
“For telling me it wasn’t very good.”
“That wasn’t what I said.”
“It was what you meant. I appreciate the honesty. Only my mother ever seems to acknowledge my missteps, and she invents new ones so often I am beginning to forget that there is a difference between my successes and her failures.”
Feuilly had learned by now that he was very glad to have had Mireille instead of Mme Combeferre as a mother. To hear her son tell it, she had never once been proud of anything he had done, including his hard-won externat. She was the only woman in France who wished her son was idle - she had raised him to seek position and influence, not a grubby profession that could get him killed. He squeezed Combeferre’s shoulder in what he hoped was an appropriate show of sympathy. “It wasn’t a failure,” he insisted gently.
“And now it is a success.”
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