Sep 7, 2009
"To whom does that carriage belong?"
The carriage, as black as night and emblazoned on both sides with heraldic emblems, comes into view along the sunlit Rue Gaston Lefevre, rattling and creaking over the cobblestones, drawn by a splendid pair of ebony mares. It rushes to halt before the mayoral palace. Two footmen leap nimbly into the street from their stations at the rear to attend to the occupant.
"My dear Federigo, I believe you have spent too much time between the thighs of whores to know the day's news."
"Simone, I daresay, I prefer the thighs of whores to the day's news, just as you prefer your notions of science to my notions of art."
My friend, Simone, laughs heartily at my observations and tips his glass to me before taking a sip of the light, provincial blend.
"But truely," he returns to my question, "do you not recogise those insignia?" He waves his ebony walking stick with its delicately carved, ivory handle in the general direction of the carriage. One of the footmen has received an envelope from within and gone racing upwards along the ornate, white marble ballustrade to announce the arrival.
"Surely that rampant lion is of the House of Castiglia," I note, "but I fail to recognise the mountain on which it rises"
"Fairly done, Federigo," he praises, "but there is so much more! If you observe, it is a mountain with three golden casks..."
"Monte Dorato!" I exclaim.
"Exactly, my friend. The lion rampant, above, represents the Castiglian domination of the Monte Dorato territory since 1382."
"Then the carriage belongs to the young widow, the Marchessa de Monte Dorato."
"... touted as one of the most beautiful women in all of Europe as, I believe, we shall presently have the perfect seats to witness with our own eyes."
“But wherefore her presence here?” I inquire of my more knowledgeable friend.
“Ah! A story in itself, dear Fede. It seems that her views are too liberal for her homeland and she drew the attention of the 'unholy' Inquisizione. Rather than face investigatioin, or worse, the Tribunal, she has choosen exile with the full knowledge and complicity of the the King of France himself, if only for the motive of planting another thorn into the Pope's side.”
We refresh our glasses from the flask on the table and turn our attention fully on the black carriage which stands in the street. The footman returns, panting, from the palace and stops before the carriage to announce loudly, 'Messieur, le Docteur Jean-Antoine Fleury, Mayor of St. Antoine-sur-Seine respectfully requests the presence of Eleonora Amat de Castelvì, Marchessa de Monte Dorato, at her pleasure.' With the social etiquette dispensed, the steps are unfolded from beneath the body of the carriage and the door is opened. The two footmen place themselves rigidly to either side of the door, offering their shoulders as support and the woman appears from within, stepping lightly down from the carriage.
I am captivated from the moment of first sight. She emerges like the birth of Aphrodite from a sea-foam of black satin and lace, dressed in the fashion of her country and befitting her condition. I have only a glimpse of her features before a black, lace veil is pulled down over her face; a face of such divine proportion and porcelain purity as I have never witnessed in my mortal days. My hand shoots outward and closes forcefully over Simone's wrist.
“Mon Dieu, Simone! She is divine inspiration incarnate! I must possess her. I must... paint her.”
“Federigo! Perhaps, if you do not cripple my wrist with your grip, you will give me leave to talk some sense into you.”
I loosen my grip upon his wrist and watch, trembling with emotion, as the Marchessa de Monte Dorato ascends the steps of the mayoral palace, erect and dignified, escorted by her footmen, and then disappears behind the massive wooden doors. I sigh and turn back to my friend.
“My dear Federigo,” he addresses me as a truant student, “your paintings have already been called lurid and obscene because you focus on the female form. Do you believe, truely, in your soul, that a woman of the aristocracy, the Marchessa no less, will bear her charms and take a place on canvas beside whores and washerwomen? Has the phase of the moon got to your head?”
I feel the well-spring of artistic passion rising within me and know that no amount of convincing will deter me from a further encounter with the Marchessa. Simone studies me closely, his brow furrowed in thought, and, no doubt, running through logical formulae in his head.
“There's nothing to deter you from this endeavour, is there?” he spouts with resignation.
“I'm sorry, Simone. I must have the opportunity to try... to study that face. If all women are the image of perfection, the very mind of God, then is she not the greatest exemplar ever before our eyes?” I feel the flush of passion and of the wine grow upon my face.
Simone looks away, seeming to ignore me, and his vision travels absently over the regular faades of the buildings opposite us. His brow creases repeatedly in intense thought and then, finally, he casts his eyes, filled with the love we hold for one another, toward me and smiles.
“I think I know what to do,” he says and lays a finger to the side of his nose like an old sage or mystic prophet. He removes, from an inner fold of his coat, a slip of coarse parchment and draws, from another concealed compartment, a little stylus of the most curious property; he begins to write upon the tiny document, using no ink whatsoever, but the little stylus leaves it's mark, clear and bold, upon the sheet.
“Ho ho! What feat of conjuring is this, my friend?”
“Not to worry, Fede, it is but a trinket I purchased from a little fellow in port one day. He insisted that it arrived all the way from the Spanish Indies but I don't know to believe him.”
He finishes writing the note and folds it carefully, then calls loudly to the tavern owner to bring a lit candle. It promptly arrives in the hands of a handsome wench, the master's daughter. He removes his ring and, holding the candle at just the right angle, drops the wax into a small pool on the folded end of the page. Then, while it slowly turns opaque, he pushes his ring into the wax to seal the document properly. He returns the candle to the girl who stood watching the little ceremony and she disappears inside but not before casting her eyes once over my friend and, especially, at the purse hanging from his thick leather belt.
“That one has a future somewhere,” I note to him but he ignores me, replacing the cooled ring on his finger, and opens the draw-string of his purse to withdraw from it a tiny gold coin and then tightly recloses the purse. He calls to an urchin in the street.
“Garçon! Ici! Me comprendes?” he voices in a fair imitation of the vernacular used by the lower classes. He holds the tiny gold coin pressed between the tips of his fingers.
“Ouais, Messer,” responds the filty child drawing closer and eyeing the shiney coin hungrily.
“Bon! You will do this for me and you will do it on the run, entendes?” Again comes the affirmative from the boy. “You are to take this note,” and he waves it in the boy's face, “to the theatre of the Commedia at the end of the square; the one with the columns. You say that it is for the hand of Monsieur, le Directeur Pierre Beauchamps seulement. Entendes?”
“Ouais, j'entende, Messer,” responds the creature.
“You give it to him in his hand and you wait for his answer. Return with another note like this and you will receive this gold 'sous' for your trouble, d'accord?”
“D'accord, Messer,” the child responds, resembling an African parrot for its lack of words, although his eyes seem to be bright, even intelligent. I feel that he will accomplish his task with zeal, if not only for the small, gold coin. The child accepts the folded note and slips it under the knotted piece rope that suspends his breaches. He stands uncertain for a moment until Simone shouts 'Volez!', and he speeds off, running across the square toward the theatre, as though the Devil himself were champing at his heels.
“Now will you kindly explain to me what games you are up to?” I ask, smiling and touching the glass of wine to my lips.
“It is quite simple, my dear friend,” he answers, smugly sipping from his own glass. “M. Beauchamps owes me a favour for some artificial fire I prepared for his company when they performed 'Faustus' last year. Federigo, if this proceeds as expected, we shall be invited to the Ball after tonight's performance in honour of Madame, la Marchessa.”
My jaws drop open in surprise and delight, and my mind quickly turns to the thought of meeting her, of being introduced as is properly done. I reach across the table and clasp his hand tightly in wordless thanks. He smiles back at me like a loving brother.
Only few minutes later, the filthy boy returns, running across the square, dodging horses and carriages alike, as fast as his short legs can carry him. He stops in front of Simone, does a fair imitation of a salute and produces a folded white card impressed with a red seal.
“Avec les compliments du Messieur Beauchamps,” he recites and hands it over.
“Bien faites, mon petit, and here is the promised payment for your trouble.” The tiny gold coin appears by 'légère-de-main' in Simone's fingers and is dropped into the grimey, outstretched palm of the child. At first, he smiles broadly showing a mouth full of decayed teeth but then he seems overcome by emotion and falls to his knees attempting to kiss Simone's hand. Simone withdraws his hand suddenly and then raps his cane sharply on the pavement sending the boy scurrying away.
“Why so rough with him?” I inquire. “He did his duty well.”
“Did you not hear his breathing?” responds Simone, shaking his head. “That one has the pulmonary phthisis; sadly, he will not survive to be a man. I remain convinced that contact rather than the miasma are responsible for its transmission, ergo, I would not allow him to kiss my hand.”
“You never cease to surprise me with your strange ideas, dear Simone.” I raise my eyebrows in a comical expression. “But what of the note that the poor creature brought to us?”
Simone cracks open the red wax seal on the card and quickly scans the florid writing that comes into view as he unfolds it.
“Bon! Nous sommes arrivés!” He smiles and reads the contents to me. “ 'My dear colleague' says M. Beauchamps 'You, and your friend Don Federigo, must be my guests to the Ball at the Comédie in honour of M.me la Marchessa at 10 post meridian tonight. With due respect, etc. etc. Beauchamps'. What do you say to that, Fede?”
“Delighted, marvellously delighted,” is all I manage to respond.
“Now mark me well, Federigo. You must wear your finest coat and stockings tonight. Be sure that your shoe buckles are well polished and, I pray you, do not be drunk!” He studies me with severity.
“I assure you, dear Simone, that for only the chance to glimpse the Marchessa again, I will give up drink forever!”
“Allors, we must be off to prepare ourselves for the Ball.” He stands and tosses a few bronze coins on the table for the wine we consumed. I rise to my feet, a little more unsteadily than he, and we pass into the street together.
“I will call for you with my carriage tonight, va bien?” he informs me.
“Assolument, mon ami.”
He kisses me on the lips and then departs quickly across the square toward his own lodgings, swinging his walking stick and bowing frequently to the passers-by.
I turn instead, walking absently in the direction of my studio, but my thoughts are filled with the image of the Marchessa Eleonora Amat de Monte Dorato.
We arrive in Simone's carriage, with its single, sway-backed, sullen steed and even more sullen driver, before Le Théâtre de la Comédie as the majority of the guests are being ushered out from the night's performance under the light of mighty braziers that cast their shadows far into the dimly lit Plâve du Théâtre. Simone casts his eye over me as we descend to the street, illuminated in flickering yellow light.
“You have prepared yourself well, cher ami.” He nods his approval.
I had despaired of receiving his compliment when I returned to my apartments and noted, with mounting dismay, the dismal state of my wardrobe. My best black coat, with its braided trim and diverting silver appliqués was torn and discarded in the bottom of the cabinet, the result of a fight over a whore in one of the many taverns in which I was no longer welcomed. My stockings were similarly reduced and completely unsalvageable. I sent my house-maid scurrying, with the last few coins picked from the bottom of a large earthenware jar in the pantry, to purchase new black stockings and, upon her return, she was given instructions to promptly bring about a miracle with my coat. She spent the whole of the afternoon, first mending, and then steaming it. Thankfully, my shoes were in better condition since hardly ever worn; I much prefer my habitual soft, calf-skin boots which, at least in my own mind, give me the air of a chevalier. I buffed the buckles of the shoes and then applied a thick layer of boot-black while the maid fussed over my coat. In the end, the ruse came together and I exited, on the arrival of Simone's carriage, sporting a freshly powdered wig and walking stick; giving the impression of a respectable man.
Simone takes my arm and we ascend the steps toward the theatre. His own dress is far more severe than my own. He wears the traditional long coat and three-cornered hat that show him to be an academician, and he wears the insignia of his positions pinned carefully above his breast.
"Messieur, Docteur des sciences et du médcin, Simone Martine-Clarisse, and Don Federigo Alvarez de Miguel de Val de las Rosas, artiste," announces the liveryman at the entryway upon receiving our invitation in hand. His rich, full voice pierces the din of the large, crowded ballroom and several faces turn, amidst a patter of polite applause, to acknowledge our arrival; Simone, the widely acclaimed and respected man of science, and the dubiously received artist.
The ballroom is sumptuously appointed with stuccoed and gilt floral motifs under a frescoed ceiling depicting the four seasons. Simone and I take in all of this splendour as we descend the steps to the floor of the hall and notice Beauchamps making his way toward us.
Pierre Beauchamps is a squat, barrel-chested, bandy-legged man with a full moon face marred by the pox; he resembles a toad walking upright. His wig is too large which makes his head seem undersized and his gold-coloured and richly embroidered frock coat strains to bursting over his massive chest and belly. This overall lack of a pleasing outward appearance is immediately contrasted by a broad, genuine smile and his effusive and infectious gaiety.
He bows to us both, low and theatrical; he tips the toe of his gold-buckled shoe forward and then inclines his body toward us with his arms behind to draw out the tail of his coat. Despite my impropriety, I cannot help smiling at his performance.
“Ah! Mes amis! Vous êtes bienvenus! Welcome! Welcome!” His smile beams over us and he grabs Simone in a good natured embrace. “Cher Docteur! So delighted you wrote to me, and thank you for coming on such short notice!” He turns his attention to me, “...and you, Don Federigo! I know of your work; your depiction of beauty! Wonderful! Exquisite! Would that these small-minded naysayers simply contracted the plague and left us to view God and beauty in our own way, eh?” He begins to laugh; the sound is so incredibly jovial that we are powerless not to join in. He bows to me again and I return the respect in kind. “Now, dear friends, you must meet our most gracious and honoured guest, the Marchessa; a woman of exceptional qualities! Delightful! Peut-être la plus belle femme du monde; elle est come une Hélène pour notre temp, n'est-ce pas? Please, do follow.”
He leads us across the ball room, still muttering contentedly and bestowing his broad smile upon other guests as we pass. Simone is rigid and dignified, as befits his station, and we walk together in silence, occasionally pausing to bow before friends and acquaintances. My mind is a whirlwind of thoughts as I imagine the impending introduction to the Marchessa Eleonora but, outwardly, I attempt to retain my composure; my left arm remains posed with my hand on my waist, stepping heel-and-toe in imitation of the courtly fashion, and my walking stick clicks softly on the polished, white marble floor.
Beauchamps nods to us to wait as the Marchessa comes into view. She is surrounded by some slathering, self-serving, local politicians who vie pathetically for her attention with their boisterous and inappropriate speech-making. A short distance away, at constant attention, are her footmen, ladies-in-waiting and, at least one secretary. Beauchamps approaches the group and clears his throat loudly. The politicians are silenced in deference to the host of the Ball. He whispers discretely to the Marchessa, gesturing toward us with his hand. Her eyes flicker upward and we both, automatically, bow slightly in recognition of her attention. Finally, she nods and makes her excuses to the disgruntled politicians.
The Marchessa rests her hand upon Beauchamps' forearm and approaches with her small retenue hovering behind her like a cloud of angels. Simone and I bow low before her as she nears and then rise only as she stops before us. She addresses Simone first and extends her hand.
“Enchantée, Monsieur Docteur, your fame as a man of the sciences extends even to my homeland.”
“Le plaisir est tout a moi, Madame Marchessa. You flatter me with your words which are much too kind,” replies Simone, doffing his hat and bending to imitate a kiss to her hand. “Might I add, Madame, that your French is impeccable and you do great honour to my country with your presence.”
“Now it is you who flatter me, Docteur,” she responds and is clearly pleased with his answer. She turns and her dark, Castiglian eyes fall upon me and we repeat the ritual.
“Enchantée, Don Federigo, I have heard much of you in various circles.” Her comment refers to the controversy surrounding my work; she is clearly well informed and is testing me.
“Enchanté Marchessa,” I respond. I bend to receive her extended hand and I linger momentarily; studying the delicate, bejewelled fingers before I gently kiss the back of her hand and savour the slight perfume of her body that resides there. “I too have heard so much of you and, I note, the rumours of your great beauty are entirely false.”
There is a collective uptake of breath from those surrounding me as I rise and fix my gaze steadily upon her. Simone coughs nervously and stamps his cane on the floor. From the corner of my eye, Beauchamps fidgets, hopping awkwardly from one foot to the other and he is, no doubt, already attempting, mentally, the recovery from such an insult. Her mouth twitches slightly at the sides and the colour rises to her powdered cheeks.
“Indeed, Madame, la Marchessa,” I forge on, anxious to complete my charade before it is too late, “there is no rumour that could give even the breath of truth to the extraordinary reality that now stands before us in flesh and blood; truely an image of beauty of which only God could conceive.”
The Marchessa de Monte Dorato fixes me with her onyx coloured eyes and then bows slightly in appreciation of the inventively constructed compliment. M. Beauchamps begins to beam his smile again and all heave a heavy sigh of relief as the tension quickly dissipates. Simone looks at me in exasperation and shakes his head.
“I see that Don Federigo enjoys a bon mot,” she says and taps me lightly in chastisement on the forearm with her folded fan. “However, that is not a game I would encourage Monsieur to practise frequently.”
“Indeed Madame, it is not a game that I believe I will ever practise again,” I say to her in honesty. “It is only now that my heart has recommenced to beat and my blood to flow.” I know well that a fumbled word-play, resulting in a grave insult to a noblewoman such as the Marchessa, could result in banishment or worse. The Marchessa Eleonora seems to accept my show of retiscence and smiles benignly at me; it washes over me like the effect of a revitalising elixir.
“Perhaps then, my clever Don Federigo,” she says to me, “you would honour me with a clearer explanation of these concepts of beauty that seem to so dear to you but so unwelcomed elsewhere.” She steps forward to place her hand lightly on my forearm, allowing me to escort her. She nods pleasantly in dismissal to Beauchamps and Simone who join together immediately in whispered but animated conversation.
“Madame”, I say, focusing the totality of my attention upon my new-found Beatrice, “where do you find beauty?”
“I believe my inquiry was directed to you, Don Federigo”, she chastises again, and tilts her chin upward, a symbolic revendication of her status. I feel a blush rise to my cheeks and realise, with temporary panic, that I am close to being in a horse race with no horse at all; that I may be running entirely in the wrong direction. In her action, that thrust of delicate, narrow chin conveying power and status, there is also much of the woman whose hand now rests upon the broad, braided cuff of my coat; her hair, as dark as her eyes, above her fair complexion, and wrapped in its black lace net, passes softly across the high, crenelated collar that rises rigidly above the shoulder of the tightly laced bodice of gown. The gown itself, spills volumes of silver-embroidered, black silk that trails behind us, sighing, as we walk. Any woman could make a showing of her status through that simple gesture; few could do it with the exquisite grace, bred in blood and bone over dozens of generations, possessed by the Marchessa.
“Of course, Madame”, I answer, “forgive my impertinence but, it is only in my passion for the subject of beauty that my performance becomes so impromptu”.
She nods her acquiescence and I forge ahead without a pause.
“The Bible teaches us that all which derives directly from God is Perfection, this is so, and, were it not for the ruse played by the Demon upon Eve and, from thence, the unsuspecting Adam, all humankind would still live in the bliss of the Earthly Paradise. The beautiful daughter of God, Eve, was His second creation of a human person, taken and fashioned, as scripture tells us, from the rib of the man while he slept”.
The Marchessa studies my face as I speak and, I can feel my own fervency in the belief that what I recount is a truth.
“I, myself, am only a man and, as such, tainted by sin but, just as I, a painter, may improve my craft on a second or subsequent attempt, is this not also the same for God?”
“What you say, Don Federigo, is heresy, as it intimates imperfection in the Being of God. You would be punished by the fire very quickly in my country”, the Marchessa exclaims, but her eyes are wide with interest. She glances about nervously to see who is within earshot and her hand flies to clutch at the black Christ which dangles upon the silver rosary about her neck.
“I am fully aware of my... unorthodoxy, Madame, but I believe I also know that what I say is true. My dear friend and boon companion, le Docteur Simone, has shown me strange rock formations, in which, there are preserved the impressions of creatures which, now, we know not. It is his thinking and he, as a man of the sciences, knows far better of such matters than I, that perhaps these creatures, whose impressions now remain in the rocks of the earth, existed either before the Flood, or even, as traces of a previous Creation”.
“This is not possible to know!” she exclaims and her face takes on a stern expression. I have the distinct impression that her hand, proprietously placed upon my forearm, wishes to be withdrawn for fear of being singed by the same fires, here or hereafter, which will consume me.
“Indeed, Madame”. I am obsequious in my response. “It is not possible for me, a poor and imperfect man, to know the Mind of God. I only have such reasonings as were imparted to me on my own creation by which to gain knowledge of the world”.
“It is true that we must use such faculties as we have in order to more fully understand our singular purpose in God's Creation, for if we are negligent in their use, we remain, thusly, ignorant and forever blind to His Design”.
“C'est vraiment vrai, Madame. And, finally to my arguement; while the Ancients believed that the harder line of the male represented the perfection desired of God, it is mine, contrarily, that the softer line of the female body is the more refined and represents, wherever it is found, the closer approximation of God's intention in His Creation”.
The Marchessa stops suddenly and turns to face me, her lace-gloved hands drawn and folded before her waist in courtly fashion. The flush upon her face reveals either her womanly passions or the heat of offense. I stand motionless and dare not look at her.
“Don Federigo, I will entertain these curious notions of yours for the present only and, lest I judge unfairly such thoughts as you hold, I will honour you with my presence at your studios tomorrow where you may, if you are able, further illustrate their merits”.
I look up at her, scarcely believing the words that have been pronounced. She nods and her Secretary steps up, frowning and condescending. He extends a hand, palm upward, toward me. I stare at his palm, uncomprehending. The Marchessa turns away and is instantly engulfed again by the slathering and fawning politicians.
“Votre billet de visite, Monsieur”, says the Secretary. “The Marchessa shall not be wishing to inquire at the local tavern for your whereabouts”.
The Secretary deposits my card in his dossier and then scuttles away to be at the Marchessa's disposition. Simone simultaneously appears at my elbow.
“So help me, Federigo”, he pronounces, his lips drawn tight in chagrin, “if you offend her, there will be no need of the wrath of God upon you. Mine alone will be quite sufficient!”
“Simone!” I answer him, still not wishing to breathe or move lest I awake from a wonderous dream. “She will come to my apartments on the morrow to view the paintings. I may yet convince her of their merits!” Simone's eyebrows raise comically, like the visage of a theatre masque and dispelling his normally dour public countenance. He smiles and embraces me tightly.
“It is, indeed, wonderful”, he whispers affectionately to my ear and releases me from his grasp. “A patronage from such nobility could bring your vision to a wider and more accepting community”. He looks thoughtful for a moment. “What is the state of your apartments now, Fede?” I consider and then respond.
“They are as they are usually found, Simone”. I smile but feel a worry settle uncomfortably upon my breast.
“It is insufficient for such a guest”. He frowns. “We must flee this place at once. On the way, we will rouse that house-wench of yours. You must work all of the night to be certain you are able to receive the Marchessa Eleonora on her arrival”. I accept his arguement although, I confess, I am ill-disposed to leave the gay atmosphere of the Ball and I thirst for yet more wine. “We cannot have the Marchessa leaving your studio carrying fleas”, he underlines and takes my arm to lead me away. He is correct - as usual.
We move as quickly as custom permits through the throngs of guests pausing, now and again, to offer our regrets. Finally, we encounter Pierre Beauchamps as we near the stairs. His smile is more effusive than ever and his pock-marred complexion ruddied with wine. He seems near to theatrical tears when we inform him that we must depart but brightens considerably on hearing the raison-d'黎re.
“Che chance merveilleuse!” he exclaims and embraces me - his thick arms are like tree trunks wrapped around me. “Bonne fortune demain, mon cher ami!” He kisses me and then we bow. He repeats the ritual with Simone and, with our many thanks for his graciousness hanging happily in the air, we leave Beauchamps smiling and waving at the foot of the stairs and rush up and into the street.
My house-servant is shocked and fearful after being awakened by a barrage of blows from our canes upon the wooden, poorly-hung and scarcely secured door of her hovel. She explains that she feared the Guard had come to take her and her crippled mother to the dungeons for some debt of her errant father. Simone is gentle with her, his voice calm and barely rising sufficiently to hear above the straining, creaking frame of the carriage as we rattle through the night-silenced streets.
“ﾉcoutes moi”, he says to her and begins to explain. I see the flash of a tiny, gold sous. He presses it into her palm and tells her what she must do. She nods, eyes widening at the thought of hosting nobility at her master's house. He turns to me.
“Fede, when the cock crows in the morning, I shall return to your studio with some fortifying wine and sweet-meats from the market, as well as, some delicacies from my own larder so that you will have suitable fare to offer the Marchessa. I will help you arrange the canvases to best advantage and then I will depart. You must be bathed and perfumed before she arrives, do you understand?” I nod, aware of the earnesty and truth which he communicates. My fingers drum nervously on the sill of the carriage. It suddenly surges to a halt. Simone speaks from the darkness within as we descend to the flickering illumination of the gas-lit street.
“You have much to do, Fede. Mark my words carefully: be fruitful and do not rest until it is done. If you bungle this encounter, you will live in the disgrace of your error. Bon travaille!”.
He waves curtly and then thumps his cane on the roof of the carriage shouting, 'Chez moi!' The sullen driver sitting above, a long, clay pipe hanging limp from his mouth, flails at the nag with his whip, sending it's eyes wide in panic and it's hooves pounding over the cobbles. In only a moment, we are left in near silence with only the distant echoes of those hooves arriving to our ears. I turn toward the girl who stands wringing her hands in worry a few paces from me.
“Allors”, I suggest. “Allons-y?”
“Oui Messieur”, she answers meekly and courtsies. She follows in my shadow as I approach the door and insert the iron key into the lock.
The bells of the tiny, ancient church of Sainte Claire are chiming 10 o'clock and the Marchessa's arrival is imminent by the time we have completed our preparations. The girl is folded, dozing, onto a small stool in the kitchen after her indefatiguable exertions during the night which brought the studio to the state in which it now resides. Linens, curtains and carpets were hung and beaten unrepentently for hours. Floors and walls were washed. Cobwebs swept from the high rafters and the occasional mouse was sent, with the threat of a broken spine under a sage-grass broom, fleeing into the hallway. With the first light of dawn, we despaired of having all our preparations in place but, Simone's arrival gave us new energy. He brought all that he had promised and more – strong wine, sweets, delicate cheeses and dried meats and enough bread to feed His Majesty's Army. We stood about a small table sharing some of the fare and beamed with drowsy pride at the river of compliments he bestowed on us for our work; even the girl managed a weak, mute smile. His crowning acquisition was an enormous bouquet of dark, purple orchids which gradually filled the space with their sumptuous perfume. He helped me move the canvases to their places: the largest ones, we placed in the center such that they would fill the vision with their presence; smaller canvases and some studies on parchment were tacked to the walls like a constellation of revolving stars. Then, with a kiss and an embrace, Simone left, telling me he would await my news.
A clatter of hooves and the rattle of a carriage stirs me from my reverie. I rise from the seat into which I had fallen and rush to the window to see the ebony team stopped in the street below.
“O mon Dieu!”, I whisper to myself and then shout to the girl: “Susette! Elle est arriv馥!” She promptly falls to the floor from the little stool, scarcely awake, and rises clumsily to her feet, straightening her apron and gowns, frantically tucking some stray whisps of dark hair under her bonnet. I have already thrown the doors wide in greeting and hear the heavy thump of the Marchessa's footmen coming up the stairs. In their wake is the Marchessa Eleonora radiant in a gold gown accented with sun-burst patterns of pearls. Her hair is pinned up under a small hat from which descends a customary veil. She carries a bright yellow, lace parasol folded to use as a walking stick. I stand within to receive my honored guest and the footmen take their places to either side of the door, eyeing me suspiciously. She stops before the door awaiting my invitation. The image of her before me and the weight of the moment are near sufficient to induce me to forget protocol but, despite my trembling knees, I manage a low bow and sweep my arm to the interior.
“S'il vous pla羡, Madame, entrez. Vous 黎es bienvenue”, I stutter, my breath hitching in nervousness within my chest. How I wish that Simone were here.
“Merci, Sigr Federigo”, she says. “Vous 黎es tr鑚 gentile”. She wafts past, pausing with a firm gesture to her footmen: 'Attendez ici'.
My aggitation dispels any notion of drowsiness and, bowing repeatedly, I guide her to a cushioned seat in the centre of the room from which vantage she may view the paintings before her. I assist her to sit comfortably and she gathers her gowns to cover her feet. The bright sunlight from without is near perfect, dispelled and difused through the heavy curtains but, the casements thrown wide, permit a slight breeze to freshen the dimness.
“Girl!” I clap my hands once, hoping that the charade seems natural. “Bring refreshment for my guest!”
Before she appears from the pantry, I can already hear the tray rattling, clasped tightly in trembling hands. The tray carries a caraffe of cool water and a glass of wine. My fear mounts that both may end up, emptied of their contents, upon the Marchessa Eleonora's finery but the girl stops and courtsies and then repeats the gesture and continues. The Marchessa accepts the glass of wine from the bobbing tray and then whispers softly to the girl: 'Une seule fois, c'est suffisante'. The girl blushes, staring at the floor, and stops. I signal her to attend in silence at the Marchessa's shoulder.
“Puis-je vous offrire d'autre, Madame?”
“Non merci, Don Federigo. Je vous remerciez pour la votre hospitalit. Perhaps you would care to introduce your work whilst I savour this delicious wine”.
“Bien sr, Madame”, I answer, aware that my own moment of truth has arrived. I step across the room on unsure legs and, one by one, draw back the white muslin sheets that cover the canvases. Then, with naught else to do, I stand to the side and bow deeply, awaiting with nary a breath passing my lips, to hear her pronouncement.
She focuses her attention on the largest canvas, placed purposefully at the centre and slightly forward of the others. It is large by any standard; 80 by 100 French inches – a great, dark curtained presence in which a figure is posed in classic triangular form. The light, upon the canvas, is represented by a single candle flame tossed in a suggestion of breeze and burning low in its holder.
“A Madonna and child...”, observes the Marchess Eleonora and then pauses.
The figure, draped loosely in the identifying blue mantle emerges, chiaro-scuro, from the barely implied, sagging drapery of the background and the unsure light gives unfocused, azure highlight to the mantle and a soft glow where the flesh tones exit the darkness. The woman reposes on a low chair, her legs folded below the seat. The mantle falls in abundant billows revealing her shoulders and she holds the child to her exposed breast in a suspended moment of maternal intimacy.
“Dios!” exclaims the Marchessa. Her hand flies to the tightly laced bodice of her gown and then grasps the black Christ which hangs from her neck. “You... you have depicted the Mother of God as a cripple!”
“Non, Madame!”, I blurt out, too forcefully and then quickly start to explain. My voice strains in supplication. “I found the girl like that – the child is her own. Her beauty and innocence captivated me from the first vision. The leg which you see is the result of a street accident when she was even more of a child. A carriage, driven with scant caution, caught her as she returned from market to her mother. In time, with no attention available to their means, the leg healed – deformed and gradually wasting to that thing which you see”.
“...as the Mother of Our Saviour?”
“Oui, Madame... but... is she not beautiful?” The Marchessa averts her eyes from the image and turns to another. In it, a girl, posed at the edge of a pond with her toes trailing in the still water beneath the eternal depth of a star-lit sky, is draped in a saffron robe which clings to her dampness and reveals the youthful shape and perfect lineaments of her body. The blush of emotion rises to the Marchessa's cheeks.
“Que-ce que c'est pass?”
“She worked since childhood in her father's woodshop. The wet-saw took her arm above the elbow when it clasped the cuff of her chemise.”
In the painting, the arm, prematurely abbreviated and shadowed, pokes incongruously from the brightness of the yellow drapery.
“Mais, sont monstreuses...”
“Begging the Marchessa's pardon, I claim that they are not. I declare that the sublime perfection of their creation makes the infirmity of body inconsequential”. She gestures, questioning uncomfortably, to another canvas. The face is turned into shadow but, the incipient light touch of the brush upon the canvas elevates the scar. It run down the forehead to the chin, the flesh torn open and then coarsely closed by the barber's hasty stitches: the eyelid cleft and the eye damaged to sightlessness. “It was her father, Madame... in a fit of pique for childish disobedience”.
“Mais, sont toutes des jeunettes...” Her breath comes in spasms. I am unsure if she is convinced or repulsed.
“Yes. It is true. All young”.
“I was once a girl...”, she begins. She shakes her head, unsure, pauses and drinks from her glass. She holds it out to be retrieved by the girl who scuttles off, the tray rattling dangerously, to refill it. Her fingertips carress the black Christ and she seems lost in thought. Her glance traces skittishly over the canvases and then away and her brow creases with inner turmoil. “I was once a girl but that ended far too soon”. She sighs and takes up her own narrative.
“I grew up on my parents' estate outside of Valencia – their only and cherished child. They adored me from the first of my memories to the last as they are now, if it is God's will, passed unto His presence”. She makes the sign of the cross and kisses the Crucifix. The girl returns and the Marchessa absently retrieves the offered wine. With a wave, I dismiss the girl back to the pantry.
“My upbringing was strict as is the natural way with children: Catechism at first light in the morning followed by lessons under the unwavering stare of Sister Madallena from the nearby Convent of Santa Lucia. My parents demanded that I learn more than what is common for a girl. Thus, I was instructed in Latin and Rhetoric and could recite many of Cicero's discourses by rote. I learned the mysteries of numbers, geography, history and some of the gentler arts more befitting a girl”. She smiles fleetingly as some pleasant recollection seeps like a refreshing breeze to her mind and sips from the glass dangling in her grasp.
“However, in the afternoons, I was free to roam – and roam I did. I would take a flask of water, cheese and bread from the big kitchen at the back of the house and set off on my pony, whom I called 'Eduardo', on imaginative adventures about the estate. I knew of a tiny glade hidden behind a hillock in a far corner of the estate where we would often pause on hot days and enjoy the cooling shade and silence of the place. I fancied it to be my own private kingdom where I ruled as a kind Mistress over the plants and animals there, with the steadfast Eduardo at my side as my trusted companion. I know, it is all girlish fantasy but, it was, I am certain, during my explorations of the country-side that the seeds were planted of the woman I became. I remember returning to my parents' table for supper and regailing them with my stories of gentle justice meted out to the grass, the daisies or to the butterflies. My father would laugh uproariously and take me upon his lap, coddling me with affection and showering me with kisses for his 'Little Princess', with my mother looking on in such blissful happiness that I could only wish it had gone on forever. But, it did not”.
“My late husband...” she says. She halts and begins anew. The words begin to roll from her tongue and she quickly reverts to her native Castiglian, giving voice to the anger, sorrow and humiliation that she has never let escape her body or her soul.
“My late husband was the Marquis of Castelv. Our marriage, according to custom, was arranged soon after I became a woman. He was seven years my senior and already a Sargeant-at-Arms in the King's Guard with a promising military career before him. He was also endowed with a character of unmitigated cruelty such as I had never before encountered in the loving home of my birth. His violence, when he was present at the small castle of his inheritance, was showered first upon the stable hands – he killed more than one, then the house-maids who would try to hide on his approach and, finally, upon me. The favoured means of his violence was a lash, a woven, black leather thing, which was always clasped in his fist on his peregrinations, akin to the arrival of the third Horseman, about the grounds. I rebelled more than once, attempting to flee only to be brought back and taugh to be, said he, 'a proper wife'. His marks rest, a corruption, upon my body; evidence that nobility resides, not in title but, in spirit and action. When he died in battle against the French, I prayed harder and more fervently than I had ever prayed before that he would find Divine Justice in the fiery dominion of the Demon; I pray it still”.
She finishes and falls silent. I am left dumb with shame and dare speak not one word. Instead, my movements are shy and painfully self-conscious. I retrieve the canvas – larger nearly by twice all the others – from where it rests facing the wall and demonstrate it to her. It is newly stretched and primed, pristine, carrying with it the odour of linseed and wanting only revelation of the image that resides there already, unseen. I raise my eyes toward her and she is watching me. She dips her chin and I acknowledge, dismissing the girl.
Ten weeks later, I lie, near to swoon upon a setee in the scarce filtering, morning light which pierces the window hangings, scattering the shadows and casting an aura over the finished canvas. The Marchessa departed St. Antoine-sur-Seine eight weeks ago; summoned to the Royal Court at Versailles to make homage to the King.
The door bursts open and commotion erupts but I have no strength left to rise.
“Il a mang・quelque chose depuis cettes semaines?” shouts Simone. I recognise his timbre but feel only the need to find peace in sleep. His voice is high, afflicted with aggitation.
“J'ne crois pas, Messieur”, choruses the girl trailing behind him. “Il ne mange ni dorme plus!” Simone arrives immediately to my side.
“Fede,” he says, his blue eyes clouded with sadness, “you have depleted your strengths”. He kisses me affectionately on the cheeks in greeting but his hands are busy. He grasps my wrist sensing the feeble beat there and then listens to my breath, my heart and palpates my gut.
“It is finished...”, I gasp, hardly having the force to breathe.
“It is not finished until God calls you, my dear brother. Girl! Bring some wine and bread!” he commands. The sounds of clumsy movement in the pantry reach my ears.
“No. Look!” My hand rises with the fleeting force it has to indicate the painting. “It is done!” Simone turns to regard the canvas and then looks back at me. His eyes are filled with tears.
“Federigo! It is luminous!”
“No, Simone. The light is within – it is her beauty alone”. But my voice fails and I can speak no longer, overtaken by physical fatigue and emotional exhaustion.
The darkness of the canvas is absolute, like storm clouds crossing the sun. The light, instead, is emitted, pale and lunar, by the figure posed within a grassy glade and turned, as though in mid-step, from the viewer to expose only a one-quarter view. A ghostly, luminescent arm extends to grasp the reins of a stately, chestnut stallion whose form is nearly lost in penumbra. From her body falls a royal purple train, a fabric of exquisite sheer quality which reveals the mature form of the woman's body and, obscured in luxuriant folds, the marks of the lash, faded to a similar rich and noble purple upon her back.
“C'est la Marchesse?” asks Simone.
“Oui, Simone”, I answer and, for the thousandth time, my sorrow for her and all like her, erupts in hot tears from my eyes. I have become nothing like a man but, more like a child, unable to contain or restrain my emotion. I weep.
“Messieur Docteur!” the voice of the girl strains to piercing as she sweeps across the room, trips on the hem of her dresses and falls to a heap of crumpled fabric. She rebounds immediately, like a piece of gum from the Indies, and arrives to Simone with a piece of folded parchment in her hand. “C'est la Poste Royale!” She continues to bounce, entranced by the beauty of the yellow document and hands it to Simone's outstretched hand.
“Merci, ma fille”, he says. “C'est vrai, mon ami”, he observes, turning to me, “this is the seal of the Royal Chancellory!” The girl continues to bob like a chestnut upon water. Simone glares at her and she stops as he makes to break the blood-red seal that closes the document. He stops. “Non. Cette lettre est pour tes yeux – your eyes, not mine”. He cracks the wax seal and reverses the document, unfolding it toward me.
“Oui Messieur Federigo, s'il vous plat, leggez!” shouts the girl, beside herself with excitement. I struggle to sitting and Simone positions some cushions behind my back to assist me.
“It says...” I begin.
“Allors?” comes the reply in unison.
“ 'In the name of Her Majesty, the Queen of France, Marie, Dutchess of Avignon, etc., etc., Eleonora Amat de Castelv, Marchessa de Monte Dorato, commands the presence of Sr. Federigo Alvarez de Val de las Rosas, Artiste, at the Royal Court of Versaille to display such artistic creations as at his disposition in view of Patronage to the Court of the Reign of France...' ” At the bottom of the document, in a flourish, 'Eleonora', is blurred by my tears as two pairs of arms embrace me and ecstatic exclamations erupt in my ears.
“Fede! You have done it!” Simone's joy and his love for me are palpable. The girl is dancing about the studio singing a jig of dubious connotation.
“I suppose I will need a house-girl when I am at Court”, I conjecture quietly and wink at Simone. The girl promptly misses a step and tumbles to the floor.
“Oui Messieur!” she says, rushing forward and grasping my hand. “Je peux vous servire la Courte Royale!”
“And I would need somebody to correct my blunders also”, I say but, he is already nodding.
“Yes, you would”, Simone replies.
“Allors, mes amis! Allons-y vers la Courte Royale et vers l'avenir!”
“To the future!” shouts Simone.
“À l'avenir!” choruses the girl and then we repeat it together.
And, truthfully, no more joyous sound have I ever heard in my life. The canvas is finished. Now, there is only the future.