'So you're in love, are you?' he asked suddenly, picking up a cigarette.
'Very sad and very stupid.'
Vítor erupted in lyrical exclamations; what could be better than to tremble with love, what could be better than dreams, than kisses, than two entwined bodies?
Camilo shrugged and quickly set out his theory of love in a matter-of-fact voice, as if talking to himself: Passion was the worst misfortune an intelligent man could suffer. Any artist who falls in love is lost; love will introduce into his life all kinds of worries, concerns and compromises, and all work, all thought becomes impossible. Then there's jealousy, feigned emotion, the constant renewal of desire, the sloth of languor, childish dependency; a man's character becomes emasculated, the brain softens, ideas vanish, and someone who was once a force in society is no more than a bordello-keeper. The artist should shun love as the most humiliating of tyrants. To love a woman is to place all of one's vital energies at the service of. . . an organ! It's like being a glutton who only thinks, lives, works and moves in order to satisfy his stomach. The lover exists only to serve, to obey his heart, to give it its respectable name. I have set the artists of my time a great example. I have suppressed love. No woman has ever entered these doors, for woman is just a bundle of caprices, fantasies, nerves, sensibilities, tyrannies, arguments and inconstancies. But since Nature has its needs, and the brain requires to be free of those needs, I selected a female.'
The word shocked Vítor.
'I chose her for her statuesque qualities so that she could be my model. At the time, I was obsessed by the most idiotic ideas. I believed in the nude. I believed in Venus. I imagined that a plastic art should concern itself only with proportions, poses, colour and musculature. Fool! I had forgotten that little thing: the idea. I chose a beautiful female, and it took me a long time to find one, because the fact is most women are hideous; there's no halfway house in women between hideousness and beauty; everything that counts in a woman — breasts, hair, buttocks — all goes to ruin eventually, if we don't turn women into goddesses. Since they are mere false additions to the true human type, which is man, as soon as they lose their beauty, their refinement, their ideal quality, that is all they are, frail additions, objects. Once her breasts drop, her bottom starts to wobble and her hair becomes thin and sparse, a woman is mere myth; she's uglier than a hippopotamus or a monkey.'
Just then, the door opened and Vítor saw the most splendid creature come in bearing a tray. She had very white skin, large, dark, ardent eyes, a mass of magnificent hair, and her small head rested nobly on a statuesque body; one could sense beneath her yellow cotton gown a singular magnificence and firmness of form. She set down the tray with her large, grubby hands, and calmly left again.
'That's her,' said Camilo bluntly, sitting down at the table and cutting himself a thick slice of bread.
'Is she from Lisbon?' asked Vítor.
'No. Lisbon couldn't produce a body like that; the breed has grown corrupt. She's from near Ovar, in the country, and she's a most unusual combination, half-Arab, half-Celt. A fine specimen.'
He walked about the studio, a slice of bread in his hand.
'She's the ideal female for an artist. She's stupid and passive. She eats, obeys, takes her clothes off. She's just a body that takes orders. She doesn't bother me or interrupt me, doesn't speak to me, she's just there. When I need a female, I call her.'
'Are you married?'
'Yes, that was the only way I could get her away from her mother. I bought her, but, instead of giving the old woman gold, I gave her the sacrament of marriage. I paid her in spiritual coin. A good trick, eh? And here she is. All artists should do the same. Our loves are our creations; we give our soul, our blood and our life to love, giving away the very best of ourselves The female is for those moments when the spirit rests and the beast inside us demands satisfaction.'
'So you're happy, then?'
'No, I'm wretched,' said Camilo.
And sitting down next to Vítor on the couch, he explained.
'I had it all so intelligently worked out, but I forgot one thing: children! I forgot the children. I was completely unprepared when nine months later, a great hefty boy arrived, a little seed of flesh, who yells, bawls, roars and generally makes the house a hell. Family life is the death of the artist. How I suffer. Did you hear the cradle creaking a little while ago, well, that's the sweetest music I hear, otherwise, in the morning, there are thunderous shouts and, in the evening, terrifying screams echoing through the house . . . and of course my wife's busy, so I have to take on a maid. It's an inferno, an inferno! I must amend my maxim: what the artist needs is a sterile female. Anyway, her name's Joana. And the extraordinary thing is that pregnancy and childbirth have not changed a line of her body; there's not a fold, not a wrinkle, no slackening of a single curve. She's just perfect. A superb model . . . for those fools who believe in line and form . . . Joana!'
The woman came in. This time, her eyes, which she had kept lowered when she first entered, looked directly at Vítor and seemed to grow wide with astonishment; something in them flashed. Then, picking up the tea tray, she left as serenely as she had come.
'So there you have my views on love,' said Camilo, clapping him on the back.
Vítor was putting on his hat.
'What about this portrait, then?'
Vítor would have to talk to Genoveva. Camilo was thinking, one finger resting on his chin.
'I know, I'll paint her in revolutionary mode. What a painting! Wait, I'll get someone to light you down the stairs. I won't come with you, I don't want to catch cold.' And he shouted: 'Joana, show this gentleman out, will you?'
Vítor went down the stairs, Joana followed, holding an oil lamp. But her serene footsteps, the brush of her dress on the steps, troubled Vítor. At the front door, he lit a cigarette on the flame of the oil lamp, and his eyes met Joana's eyes. It was only a moment, but Vítor's heart shuddered with desire. He took off his hat and thanked her:
She blushed and replied:
Eça de Queirós, The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers, chapt. V, London, Dedalus, 2000, translated by Margaret Jull Costa