Excerpt from “The Painter’s Women”

Leocadia Chapter 3. Leocadia, Bordeaux, 24 April 1828

“So you see, Isabel, it is not true that Francisco enticed me away from Isidoro, or that we were already lovers while Doña Josefa was dying, or that the affair hastened her death. My marriage was over by the time I came to work for Francisco, and his wife had been dead for months. I started out as his housekeeper and did not become his lover for quite some time. He did not try to seduce me or to trick me in any way.

This is how our affair began. I was cooking puchero en olla one day when he came striding into the kitchen.

‘Señora,’ he said, ‘I need a model for a painting I am about to start. I wish you to pose for me. Of course, you will be relieved of your housekeeping duties during the time you spend modelling. I shall employ another woman in your place.’

I agreed to pose for him without a second’s consideration. Without even inquiring what kind of posing he had in mind. Now you may be wondering, Isabel, why a woman of my background was willing to do such a thing. Was I not compromising myself? To tell you the truth, I surprised myself by how quickly and how willingly I agreed. I think it might have been because I had just left my husband a few months before, and so I felt very daring. I was ready to embark on any adventure which offered itself. And what an adventure my life became! For by the time the painting was finished, the painter was in love with me.

Rosario was born eighteen months later. Until my pregnancy was obvious, I managed to hide our affair, but when it became known, I had a terrible time of it. I was unable to go out, for fear of meeting one of Isidoro’s spies, and because I could not bear the whispers and sniggers that followed me in the street. That is why, during those months, I could not see you, my dear Isabel, or any of my old friends. I was like a prisoner in that house and I became extremely depressed.

One sweltering evening, Teresa – she was our servant at that time, a foul-mouthed and insolent girl from Saragossa whom Francisco favoured – I got rid of her later on – announced that the Monsignor from Saint Benedict’s desired to see me in the salon. I wrapped my shawl around me, trying to disguise my condition. I knew full well why the cleric had taken it upon himself to come to the house.

‘Señora Weiss,’ he said, wrinkling his nose when I entered the room, as if he was speaking to a woman of loose morals. He remained seated on our new, red, satin-covered sofa, with his hat on the French mahogany table I had recently persuaded Francisco to purchase. I did not sit down, but stood just inside the door.

‘I have come to tell you that you must return at once to your husband. I have spoken to him and, out of charity, he is willing to accept as his own the child you are carrying. It is your Christian duty to return to him at once.’

I looked down at his portly form, sour face and curling lips, and, Isabel, I was furious. How dare this priest order me to go back to the man I despised.

‘I shall stay where I am, Monsignor,’ I said. ‘I have made my decision. Please do not come here again. Furthermore, when you see Señor Weiss, you may tell him that neither his spies nor his threats have the least effect on me.’