The Countess and the Artist
By Blake Tan
“Louise,” the countess said when she noticed the French exile standing in the doorway. “Oh, my darling Louise, I’m sorry for you to see me in such a state. I’m a mess.”
“Nonsense,” the painter said, coming into the parlour and taking a seat across from the countess, folding her hands in her lap. “You look beautiful as always, Varvara.”
“Louise,” Varvara said, burying her face in her crimson shawl. “I think Nikolai is cheating on me.”
The French woman took the countess’ hands in her own. “Impossible! No man in his right hand would dream of it.”
“Truly, my dear,” Louise said, squeezing Varvara’s hands. “He would be mad to do it. You are the most beautiful woman in St. Petersburg.”
Varvara’s laugh was soft and girlish, tinkling in the fire-lit darkness of the parlour. “Stop, Louise, you’re making me blush!”
“Let me prove it to you,” Louise said, standing up. “I will paint your portrait and when it is displayed, men from all over Europe will travel to see it.”
“Didn’t I say to stop? You flatter me too much!”
The countess met the painter’s eyes. Louise stared back, calm and cool, smiling with a softness her husband called her doux sourire.
“You are serious?” Varvara asked.
“Completely, my dear.”
“I will have to have my maids see to my hair – it is much too long! – and I’ll have to have a new dress made,” the countess went on until Louise held up her hand.
“Just as you are now, Varvara,” the artist said. “Just so.”
Later that week, Louise arrived by carriage, bringing her colors and her canvas. Varvara’s servants let her into the gallery where sunlight streamed in through the tall windows. Outside, snow started to fall in heaps. It always snowed in Russia, but Louise felt at home here. She had not had a home since the Revolution and no friend since Marie Antoinette. Louise’ knees trembled so she took a seat by the windows.
“Mon dieu,” she said, realizing her tears had dripped onto her canvas.
A servant brought out a cup of tea for her, which she drank gratefully. The cold had crept into the gallery, despite the troop of servants’ best efforts to stoke the fireplace.
“Would madame like a coat?” a tall serving man in a handsome blue jacket asked.
“No, thank you, but how much longer will Varvara be?” Louise replied.
A flicker of annoyance flashed across the serving man’s eyes. “I will inquire, if you wish, madame, but the countess is currently in a meeting.”
“Her husband, madame,” the servant said curtly before excusing himself from the room.
Louise waited in the gallery for the next hour, smoothing her dress nervously, trying not to listen too intently to the Russian shouting match echoing throughout the house. Perhaps it was time to leave, she thought, standing to start gathering her art supplies, when the door to the gallery opened, and Varvara Golovina came gliding in.
The countess wore the same crimson scarf from the day before, her hair done up in a messy bun. Her eyes were red and puffy, but she managed a smile for Louise.
“My apologies for keeping you waiting for so long, my darling,” Varvara said, drawing the artist into a hug. “Nikolai and I were speaking.”
“Yes, Louise, it’s exactly what I was afraid of,” the countess whispered. “He’s been seeing a woman in the city.”
“I’m so sorry, Varvara,” Louise said. “I – I can come back another time, if you want.”
The countess stepped back, wrinkling her brow. “Nonsense, Louise! You waited so long, I won’t have it said that you wasted your day.”
Varvara went to the chair in the middle of the gallery, still illuminated by the late afternoon sun, and sat down. She threw her scarf over her shoulder and smiled haughtily at Louise.
“Paint, my darling Louise, and piss on Nikolai and his mistress!” the countess declared.
Louise smiled, loving her dear friend more in this moment than ever before.
“He’s an idiot, Varvara, truly an idiot,” she said, and she dipped her brush into her paint.