My French isn’t as good as I’d like it to be. I speak it haltingly and with little flair. It’s obvious from the way I speak French, that I’m an American. Sitting on the bench next to Mademoiselle Berthier I lean toward her and whisper, “Tu as de beaux cochons.”
She puts a lace handkerchief to her mouth and laughs into it. “You just told me I have beautiful pigs,” she says in perfect English.
“Eyes,” I mean eyes, les yeux,” I say as I feel my cheeks burning with embarrassment.
“Please speak English,” she says as she lowers the handkerchief and looks at me appraisingly.
The only thing I can think to say is a cliché. “Do you come here often?”
“I’m here all the time,” she says. She looks around the gallery. “The pictures hanging in this room are beautiful, n’est-ce pas?”
“I love impressionism,” I say. “Most of it has a very dream-like quality.”
“Oui,” she says as she pets the shih tzu she’s holding in her lap. It nuzzles her arm with its nose.
I watch her fingers smoothing the dog’s hair. They are pale, slender and flawless. There isn’t any polish on her well-manicured fingernails.
“I hope you don’t mind me telling you how much I admire your looks,” I say.
“It’s a bit alarming,” she says. “But I find you charming.”
I scoot closer to her and pet the dog’s head. “What’s her name?” I say.
“Ange, angel,” she says.
“You are the angel,” I whisper.
She giggles and then says, “You don’t really know me.”
I gaze up at her straw hat topped with white feathers. “I know that you must like hats.”
She reaches up and touches the brim of her hat. “Beaucoup. This is my favorite.”
“I like that the hat doesn’t hide your face,” I say.
I inhale the subtle fragrance of her rose scented perfume. “Where are you from?” I say.
“Paris,” she says. “My apartment is on the Champs-Élysées.”
“I would like to hold your hand and walk along a Parisian boulevard with you,” I say. “Everyone would stare at us because of your beauty and think what a lucky man I was to be with you.”
“I have several hats just for that kind of occasion,” she says.
“You could wear that dress,” I say. It’s white with small burgundy, gold and green bouquets of flowers. A burgundy ruffle hangs from the front of the neckline.
“If it’s springtime, oui,” she says.
Several people pass in front of us, giving us sideways glances.
“Tell me about your life,” I say.
She lifts Angel and gazes into the dog’s eyes. “I lead a very quiet life,” she says. “I sketch, play the pianoforte and give very small, intimate parties.”
A man with a black beard and mustache and a very serious expression on his face sits on the other side of Mlle. Berthier. He’s wearing a black cape. His eyes are dark and piercing“Êstes-vous une actrice?” he says to her.
She places Angel back in her lap and says to him, “No, I’m not an actress.”
“You should be on the stage,” he says to her in broken English. “I have been admiring you from across the gallery for some time.”
“Who are you?” she says.
“I am the actor Rouvière,” he says. “I am currently playing Hamlet. You could be my Ophelia.”
“Doesn’t Ophelia die in that play?” I say.
He glares at me. “Yes, but she dies loving Hamlet. Love is always tragic.” With a dramatic flourish he flips one side of his cape over one shoulder. “Wouldn’t you find spending time with me instead of him more pleasant,” he says to her. “I could do scenes for you from Hamlet.”
“No, monsieur, I find you tiring,” she says. “Please leave us alone.”
He stands, and with a scowl on his face, he calls us peasants and then turns and disappears in the crowd standing in front of a painting of ballerinas done by Edgar Degas.
“I’d like to take you away with me,” I say.
She lowers her eyes and says in a hushed tone, “That is impossible.”
“I take her hand in mine and kiss the back of it. “Nothing is impossible when it comes to love,” I say.
A museum guard comes through the gallery. “Closing time,” he calls out.
Mlle. Berthier stands, as do I. “Embrasse-moi,” she says as she puckers her lips.
I lean in and kiss her gently, then passionately.
“Je t’aime,” she says as she climbs back into the painting and sits on the stool and looks out at me.
“I love you too,” I say.
Lovingly I run my fingers over the brass plate attached to the bottom of the picture frame. It reads: Mademoiselle Charlotte Berthier, 1883, by Auguste Renior.