IN THIS EPISODE: …Victoria is none too pleased with Vincent’s current dalliances. How much longer will she put up with all this…?
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CHAPTER 12 – Victoria’s Suspicions
Victoria Duprix – 1951 Fisher St.
The Night of a Waning Gibbous Moon
Naturally, Victoria didn’t knock before entering Vincent’s studio. “Darling,” she said, “we need to have a little chat…”
“Don’t bother me now,” he snapped, not looking up from his work. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
Indeed, her husband was busy, running his hands over the slender torso of a naked woman, reshaping the clay to his liking. Victoria wondered if it was difficult for him to sculpt with his left hand bandaged and covered in a latex glove. Unusually, he seemed to be working without benefit of either sketch drawings or a live model.
Victoria pursed her lips, caught between relief at not finding a nude girl lounging around the studio and a continuing ache of abandonment from when she had been the only model he needed.
And the bust torso he was working on wasn’t his only new subject, either. Another, life-size nude lounged nearby, reclining like one of Titian’s mythological odalisques. Both sculptures were different women, and both looked vaguely familiar to Victoria—though she couldn’t place them.
“Busy or not,” she said, tamping down her suspicions, “this is a discussion that needs to be had.”
“Very well, talk if you must,” Vincent said. “But I hope you don’t mind if I continue working.”
She did, but there was no point in arguing about it. “Vincent my dear, it’s about our money—”
He sighed. “That old sop, again?”
She continued, ignoring his jibe. “—or, rather, lack of it. As you’ve probably failed to notice, attendance at the waxworks has fallen off. The economy is bad, and even the chance to leer at a suffering martyr or a nude Venus isn’t luring the populace in the way it used to.”
“You know these things run in cycles, Victoria. What’s ‘out’ today may be back ‘in’ tomorrow—and I’ll have some new work ready soon, that’s usually good for a spike in customers.”
“In the past, it may have been, my dear, when your sculptures were the toast of London. And if you rendered your final pieces in stone, or bronze—”
“My dear,” he said acidly, “you know that wax is my preferred medium. A wax rendering has a glow to the skin, a lifelike transparency, that can’t be achieved with bronze or marble.”
“But there is no market for wax figures, save perhaps to other museums—and you refuse to sell to them.”
“They’re our competitors. Why should I sell them my best work?”
“Because, to put it bluntly, my dear: We’re broke.”
“Nonsense, I have plenty of money in my trust.”
“No. You used to have plenty of money in your trust. Now, there’s almost literally nothing left.”
“That’s absurd. When my parents died—”
“—They left us a considerable sum, that’s true.” She stared at the back of his head, as if she might bore into his skull with her graze, but he continued working. “For more than a decade now, you’ve lavished our wealth on your penny-ante waxworks and this decaying Victorian manse.”
He turned suddenly and rose, towering above her and glaring. “Ours is the best waxworks in London!”
They spent so little time together, now, Victoria had almost forgotten how tall her husband was. She took a step back. “You figures may be the best, yes,” she admitted, “but what does it matter if no one comes to see them?”
He waved his right hand dismissively and began to stalk around the studio. “Is our lack of publicity my fault, when I’m so busy sculpting?” he asked rhetorically. “Besides, if our financial situation is so dire, why aren’t you doing anything about it? I don’t see you cutting back on your trips to the theater.”
He said the last word with a sneer. Did he suspect the theater was just an excuse? Did he suspect her dalliances (as she suspected his)? Surely he had no proof…
“And what about that handyman?” he continued. “If money is so tight, why did you hire him, eh?”
The wicked gleam in his eye told Victoria that her husband had gleaned her true motive, but in no way would she admit it to him.
“There’s work to be done, Vincent!” she replied, her voice growing louder. “Work around the waxworks—and around this house! Someone has to do it, with you locked in your studio all hours of the day and night!
“We can’t afford not to have someone fixing the place up! If you think attendance is bad now, imagine how it will be when a customer trips over a loose floorboard, or when a piece of the celling falls on his head!
“And it’s not like we can count on those Cushing brats to help out!” Victoria fumed. “They seem to have plenty of money for new exhibits, but they’re behind in their rent—again!”
Weirdly, her fury seemed to have a calming effect on her husband. He stopped pacing, returned to his stool, and resumed fiddling with the clay torso. “I thought you’d settled the rent issue with those girls,” he said. “I thought they’d given you that gaudy mirror—which you seem to delight in—that’s in your bed chamber.”
“They used that mirror to settle the amount in arrears,” Victoria replied (more haughtily than she intended), “but their obligation for living and doing business under our roof is ongoing.”
“Yes… I suppose it is,” her husband said. “But they’re pleasant enough tenants, and their Chamber of Horrors seems a good compliment to the waxworks…”
“You’d think,” Victoria noted icily, “but it doesn’t seem to be attracting any more customers for either them or us!”
“Hmm…” Vincent stroked his chin, though Victoria couldn’t guess what gears might be turning in his mind.
Artists! So unpredictable—and just when you want them not to be!
“You know,” he finally said, “maybe you had something earlier.”
“What? When?” she asked, puzzled.
“Perhaps the girls could pay their rent by modeling for me, as you suggested the other day. They’re pretty enough.”
Victoria felt her face go red. When she’d said it, it had been an accusation, not a suggestion! How like her husband to twist things that way.
“But they’re only seventeen!” she protested.
“Eighteen, since three months ago,” he corrected. “That seems old enough, nowadays. This is the Jazz Era, after all—emancipation and free love, and all that. Besides you were only seventeen when you first posed for me.”
He grinned at her in a way that, at one point, Victoria would have found alluring. Now she found it infuriating.
“There was a time when you didn’t need other models!” she said, turning away so that he wouldn’t see the tears welling at the corners of her eyes. “There was a time when I was enough!”
“Well,” he began (she sensed, rather than saw his shrug), “that was a long while ago, my dear. And I’m afraid that time and gravity are often unkind to the female figure.”
She wheeled on him, furious. Part of her wanted to strip off her clothing right then and there, to thrust her body against him and dare him to deny her attractiveness; another part wanted to pick up one of his sculpting knives and stab him through the heart.
“If you shared my bed more often, maybe you’d find out that you’re mistaken,” she countered.
“Perhaps that’s why I avoid it in the first place,” he replied.
Again, she imagined plunging a clay-covered blade into his chest.
She turned away, trying to master her anger, to act casually. “Are you telling me that I wasn’t one of the fairest in London, when we met?”
“You undoubtedly were.”
“Are you saying that the others since—all those lovely anonymous bodies—could ever match up to what you had when we met?”
“Perhaps not,” he admitted. “But that was then. Today is something else.”
“How many have there been?”
He was back working again, running his right hand over a smooth collar bone. “A few. More than a few. I’ve lost track.”
“That’s your age showing, Vincent,” she jibed. Though she was seething inside, she kept her tone light, almost playful. “‘I’ve lost track…!’ So many dalliances and so little memory! Have you lost track of their names as well?”
“Of course not,” he replied, annoyed.
“Well, there was Gwendolyn… and Eve… and Piper… and Angela…”
“Piper… She was a whore, wasn’t she?”
Vincent laughed. “What of it? Lautrec painted whores; Degas, too. It’s not every girl who will take off her clothes for a handful of tuppence, you know.”
“But you’ve found more than a few, haven’t you, my love?”
“Victoria… Is there a point to all this?”
“You don’t have the money to pay for even tuppenny whores now, my love. I know; I’ve been watching the accounts.”
“Is that what this is about?” Vincent said, exasperated. “Jealously?”
“You haven’t been paying for models, my dear, so whom are you working from? Who is this?” she pointed to the torso he’d been lovingly fondling, and then to the reclining odalisque. “And this?”
Again, he laughed, almost triumphantly. “I have years of practice looking at beautiful women, my dear—you included, once upon a time.”
“Answer my question!”
He stood, and put his hands on her shoulders, patronizingly, looking directly into her eyes.
His touch both thrilled and reviled her.
“Sadly, my dear,” he said, “nowadays I work entirely from my own imagination … and my memories—past pleasant memories.”
She turned away, not believing a word of it. “Ha!” she scoffed.
“Believe me or not, as you like,” he said. “But, in either case… Leave. I have work to finish, and if we’re to have any chance of making money with the waxworks, I need to complete it.” He began working his hands on the figure’s sides, tenderly defining one rib at a time.
Victoria stood, paralyzed by anger, wanting to kill him and yet not daring to. He would never have talked like this to her when she were younger—would never have taken to working from other models.
“Old age kills a woman one grey hair at a time,” she remembered her mother saying a very long time ago. She hadn’t understood it then, but now…
“Unless, of course, you’d like to find a job yourself,” Vincent continued nonchalantly as he worked. “Though I doubt that servicing busboys or coachmen would pay the kind of salary you’d like to be accustomed to. Still… Perhaps there’d be someone willing to pay the freight for what you have to offer.” He glanced at her with a snide smile.
Coachmen…! Could it be possible he knew?
She glanced at the knife lying on the table next to him. But, as if reading her thoughts, without even a glance, he picked it up and began to work the clay with it.
Damn you to hell, Vincent Duprix! she thought.
Unable to think of a snappy reply, she turned and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
As she walked down the hall, she heard the soft sound of Vincent, chuckling inside his studio.
The nerve of that man—all but accusing her of an affair, even as he sculpted a likeness of his own lover!
The face topping that slender torso was so familiar to Victoria. It must be one of his past models—someone he’d taken as a lover once more. But who?
Victoria kept walking, not wanting to even be on the same floor of the building with her husband.
She turned on the stairway, intending to go down to the waxworks—perhaps smash a few things before starting the day.
It would serve him right if I destroyed some of his precious sculptures!
Suddenly, she ran into something solid. “Oh!”
“Oh, yourself,” said a pleasant masculine voice. “Are you all right?”
She’d been so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she’d run right smack dab into Paul Shaw, coming up the stairs as she descended.
For a moment, the two of them stood there, almost pinned against each other. His young, strong body felt warm against hers.
“I’m sorry… I… You…” she began. She stomped her foot. “You should watch were you’re going!”
“I’m sorry,” Paul replied. “But you should, too. I was just coming up to ask if you needed me to do anything else in the waxworks today. I’ll go home, otherwise.”
“Well,” she said, leaning into him, “there’s something you could do for me…”
She opened her lips slightly, started to put her arms around his neck…
But he intercepted her embrace and turned it gently aside with his strong hands. “Mrs. Duprix…” he began.
She shook herself, as if suddenly waking from a (not-unpleasant) dream. “I’m sorry, Mr. Shaw. Perhaps you misunderstood me. I have nothing else for you today. You may leave, if you wish.”
Paul nodded gratefully. “Thank you, ma’am. I’ll see you in the morning, then.”
“Yes,” she said tersely. “Bright and early.”
“Bright and early.” He pivoted and headed toward the front door.
A man like that… Victoria thought …he’d never have turned me down when I was younger!
Anger rose within her again, replacing her embarrassment at being spurned.
She wheeled, went back upstairs and into her bedroom, and locked the door.
She looked into her golden-framed mirror, assessing herself for a moment.
No. No, she didn’t look bad.
”For an old woman,” said a voice in her head.
“I’m not old!” she insisted. And just to prove it to herself, she stripped off her clothes.
She stood there a long moment, looking at her herself. In the reflection, she could still see the body that had seduced a proud young artist, but… Yes, her breasts had begun to sag a bit… and her belly, too. And her thighs and upper arms were thicker than they used to be—thicker than she liked.
And was that another grey hair?
“Damn it all!” she whispered. Where did those grey streaks come from? How could she stop this horrible march of time?!
“Blo-o-o-od!” whispered the voice in her head.
And suddenly, her reflection grew young again, all the damage of years and gravity fading in an instant. Victoria stood there, young and proud and beautiful once more.
It was a miracle!
“Thisss can be yoursss,” said the voice in her head.
And at that moment, a beautiful, dark-haired woman in a fine dress and expensive jewelry stepped up beside her refection.
Victoria whirled. How had someone gotten into her room?
But there was no one there. She stood alone in her bedchamber.
She turned back to the mirror; the woman was there—as was Victoria’s young and vital reflection.
“I almost thought I imagined you,” Victoria muttered.
The other woman laughed softly and shook her head.
“Who are you?”
“Can you really make me young again?”
“No,” the reflection of Erzsebet replied. “But I can teach you. Do what I say, and you will become as lovely as you were in the flower of your youth—as young and beautiful as I.”
Victoria stepped closer to the mirror, reaching out, trying to touch her new ally. But her fingers encountered only cold black glass.
“What must I do?” Victoria asked.
“The sssecret… isss blood! The taking of life… young life… will ressstore you!”
I wicked smile spread across Victoria’s face.
“I know just the person!”
TO BE CONTINUED…
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