Though the paintings in our small town’s only art museum seldom rose above the level of mediocrity, I visited it fairly regularly, in part because it was a refuge from both the college and
the taverns, and in part because it contained a later still life of Chardin. I never was able to discover how the museum came to possess it. On this occasion, as I again stood before the
painting, I sensed someone come up on my right. It was a lovely looking woman so, still looking at the picture, I said, “It is wonderful, isn’t it?” She turned to me and her grey eyes were serious
and composed as she replied, “Yes, Chardin seems to be painting a portrait of the Platonic idea of peaches. Quite amazing.” She turned to contemplate the painting again for a few moments
and then walked away. Not wanting to appear too obvious, I counted a slow ten before I turned to follow her. I was intercepted by the wife of a recently hired faculty member, however, who
invited me to a dinner party. I disentangled myself as quickly as courtesy allowed but did not find her anywhere. I finally went to the guard at the entrance and described the woman. “She
went to the right and then made a right at the first street,” he said. I hurried down to the corner, but she was nowhere to be seen.
The town was small, as I have said, so it seemed to me probable I could find out something about her. The professor’s wife with whom I spoke had seen her but did not know who she was,
nor did anyone else to whom I mentioned the woman remember seeing her. I began going to the museum much more often, varying the days and times in the hope of
seeing her again, but to no avail. Her beauty, gravity, and intelligence had utterly captivated me. I broke off my affair with a former student who now worked in the alumni affairs office. Mere
boredom and lust had driven me to her but she had begun talking of marriage and children. I also stopped my late afternoon visits to the Apostrophe Tavern, a place where single or unhappily
married professors, disappointed with their jobs, drank and fretted. If I ran into the woman again, I wanted my head to be clear and my romantic availability to be unambiguous. Gradually, and
for reasons that eluded me, I found I was even being more diligent, and finding enjoyment, in my teaching. As the days went by, however, my frustration grew and I became convinced that she
was someone who had just passed though town and taken in the art museum as a break from driving.
One day I was walking with my best friend on the faculty. As I was pouring out to him once again my obsession and frustration, he laughed and pointed up at a sign and said, “Why not try
her?” The sign read, “Madame Olga, Psychic.”
“Thanks, Arthur,” I said.
“Of course it’s all nonsense, but is your constant complaining any less so?”
I was furious and said, “O.K., I’ll see you,” and went up the stairs and into Madame Olga’s.
Madame Olga looked exotic but her manner was standard American Cheerful. I explained to her the situation, in a less embarrassed way than I would have thought possible for me. She
nodded, dimmed the light, and said, “I’ll check the crystal.” After five minutes or so of her silently staring into it she “awoke” and said, “That woman is a direct descendent of the painter
Chardin. You will never see her again but it is possible her spirit can be channelled.
“Her spirit? But she’s not dead.”
“No, but she is an elevated soul, so her spirit can be channelled though she is still alive.”
“Not today. I must prepare. Say in a week’s time.”
“No, thank you. How much was this session?”
“Don’t worry. I spoke too hastily. It is unlikely she would leave her mountain retreat (what you saw was an astral projection), but if, through her conversations with you, she senses a
worthy admirer of her ancestor, who knows? Romance may blossom.”
“No, thank you. How much was today’s session, please?”
“Fifteen dollars. And that is all a channelling session would cost you. Surely you are not a skeptic? Skepticism is the death of romance and of truth.”
“Here’s the money. Thank you.”
Madame Olga’s cheerfulness had now wholly disappeared. “If you don’t believe why did you come?”
“You know, I’m not entirely sure. Maybe the crystal will tell you. Good-bye Madame Olga.”I left, asking myself disgustedly what could have possessed me to go to such a charlatan or self-deluder.
A bit over a week later I was at a soiree when Arthur came over to me escorting a woman. He introduced us. She was the wife of the owner of a can manufacturer which, along with the
college, was the largest enterprise in town. “I am so glad to meet you, Professor Thane,” said she. “Forgive me, but I couldn’t help hearing about your quest for the beautiful stranger. Also, I
understand you consulted Madame Olga,” at this I glanced at Arthur, “a gifted psychic but a terrible gossip, I’m afraid.”
“So there is no psychic-client bond of confidentiality,” I said suppressing my anger and embarrassment.
“Even if there were, I doubt Madame Olga would be able to honor it.”
“I didn’t spill the beans, Julian” said my friend, “but once Mrs. East told me she knew of your visit I defended your reputation for rationality by saying you did it to spite me because of
my unconscionable teasing. As it turns out, though, Mrs. East thinks your instinct was sound.”
“Yes, Professor, and since you wouldn’t have Madame Olga channel her spirit, I paid for her to do so.” I goggled but Mrs. East continued, “Er, I didn’t want to interfere in your personal life,
of course, but I am very interested in art. My husband and I–did you know?–donated the series of coffee can collages to the museum. I thought perhaps the spirit of the young woman would
help us to further enliven the art scene in our town. It turns out she is a reincarnation of Chardin himself!” Mrs. East’s eyes now gleamed with excitement.
“I see.” I said, not knowing what to say.
Over the next several weeks, Mrs. East and Madame Olga organized a salon of sorts. I never attended but I heard that each session began with channelling in which Madamoiselle Chardin,
who apparently lived in a cave in the French Alps, explained the subjects that should be painted. The ladies–all in attendance were that–went home and into trances and painted. The results,
ranging from cubist landscapes to pictures of angelic small children cavorting in fields, were considered unfortunate by all who saw them save for the true believers. At the first exhibition,
one of the artists, smiling beatifically, said to me , “We owe all this to you. I hope what you see here today lessens your skepticism.” This was the first in a series of exhibitions of the Chardin
Revival Group, as they called themselves. Some months after the exhibitions began there was a split as some of the members claimed direct inspiration from Madamoiselle Chardin indicating
they should forsake oil for watercolor, claims the majority, following Madame Olga and Mrs. East dismissed as lunatic.
Although I had nothing to do with the group or its secessionist faction, aside from attending the first exhibition as did many others, I somehow felt all the ridicule of them one heard at the
college was also aimed at me. I grew depressed but resisted resuming drinking and went instead to a psychologist who taught at the college as well as having a private practice.
“Mr. Thane,” he said at the beginning of our second session, “it seems to me you may have imagined this woman. She is, I think, a projection of your desire to escape a deeply-
embedded self-loathing The solution is to increase your self-esteem.”
“The answer, I think,” I replied, “is to find the woman.”
“Then why not hire a detective? I’m a psychologist.” I had to admit to myself that the shrink had a point although, as far as I knew, there were no private eyes in our town. “Besides,” he
continued, “there is no such woman.”
“Mrs. Ellsworth saw her. She was in the same room,” I said, mentioning the name of the faculty wife who had spoken to me that day, interrupting my pursuit. “The museum entrance
guard did as well.”
“The guard saw some woman leave but not the one you say you saw. Mrs. Ellsworth is highly suggestible, a well-known hysteric in fact. You are deluding yourself, sir.”
“Oh, you treat her?”
“No. If I treated her I could never divulge her condition. I have observed her within the clinically correct range of ten feet at many fetes and gatherings.”
“Still, the woman I saw at the Chardin painting was real, so I think any further appointments would be fruitless. Here is my payment. Good afternoon.”
Eventually, though I never altogether gave up hope of somehow meeting the woman again, I calmed down. I continued on the wagon and led a more retired life, combining teaching with
study and writing. Two years after seeing the woman at the Chardin painting I got a job editing a prestigious art magazine up in New York.
One day, shortly after my move, I was walking along Seventh Avenue and passed a taxi that was waiting for the light to change, and the woman I had met before the Chardin still life was in
the back seat. She looked at me, her expression serious as before. I stopped, totally amazed, and bowed my head to her. The light changed and the taxi moved away. She continued to look at me
as the taxi passed. I stood still, looking after the car until it was lost in the traffic. Then I continued on my way, my memory of her intensified and my spirit tranquil. I have never seen
her after that but, ever since then, my heart has been filled with a deep devotion devoid of yearning.