After today’s chapter, I feel that we all need a break. So here’s a pleasant little tale of obsession, set in 1630s France. I hope you all enjoy.
Master Roparzh had been commissioned by the Cardinal Augustin to paint his daughter, Erzsébet. He had been summoned to the grand mansion built by Cardinal S. Cæciliæ trans Tiberim and told that it was a matter of utmost decorum and secrecy that he should paint the forbidden daughter of the most powerful man in the west of France. The Cardinal wished his daughter to be immortalised in paint, but he did not want her existence to be broadcast to the world. It was a gift for himself, so that he might alight his eyes upon his daughter’s beauty when they were separated.
Cardinal Augustin had phrased it in the strangest way. He had praised Roparzh’s ability to capture the life of inanimate objects. “I want you to suffuse this painting with as much life as you feel able to give. Make her breathe upon the canvas. Pour your life into her form from the tip of your paintbrush. She must look as if she lives, moves, loves inside that frame. That is all I ask of you.”
Roparzh thought it a rather odd thing to ask, but he agreed readily. He would do almost anything to stay in this commission, where he was allowed to live in the Cardinal’s château for six months, to be waited on hand and foot all hours of the day and night, and to be treated as an honoured guest of this Prince of the Church. He had six months to complete his work, six months where the Cardinal was in Rome, six months before he would return home and expect the work to be finished. It would be an easy task, he thought.
Roparzh had started the work by making cartoons of Madam Erzsébet. Master Holbein, a century before, had done this, and Roparzh held his work in the highest esteem. He liked to sketch his subjects extensively, to know their faces as intimately as his own, before he felt like he could truly paint them. He would spend a few days sketching Erzsébet, before starting preliminary work on the portrait.
The elegant château the Cardinal had made his home had extensive gardens, and it was there he had first seen her. He had rushed out to see her, late, a little overtired from the rich food of the house and from taking a little too much of the good wines of the cellar, to find her playing with her ladies. No, she had been watching her ladies play. As Roparzh had introduced himself to the ladies, interrupting their game of Blind Man’s Bluff, they had pointed as one to a solitary figure, sitting upon a bench, very much aside from the fun and games. This was Erzsébet, and she was unimpressed with what she saw.
He had interrupted her reading and she turned upon him, raising a pair of eyeglasses held upon a slim stem of gilt metal. The open book was upon her lap, a plain yellowed tome amongst the glittering jewels that adorned her clothing. She wore a gown of green silk, with a stomacher and bodice that groaned with the weight of precious stones they were decorated with. Diamonds shone from about her neck and wrists and hung from her ears, and a chain of thick pearls hung from her bodice. She was pale, fashionably so, but there was an unhealthy tinge to the colour of her skin, a yellowness that undercut her natural beauty. For she was beautiful: a high forehead, a slim face and neck, full lips, brown eyes that were a little overlarge for her face, dark hair that hung around her face in carefully maintained ringlets. Her hands, stiff with shining rings, were small and delicate, and she held one out for him to kiss. He brushed it gently with his lips as she appraised him with those large, luminous eyes, and pinched her lips together with disapproval.
She was beautiful, so entirely and utterly perfect, that her beauty was abhorrent and faintly distasteful. Her looks were an abnormality, lacking in the tiny marks of imperfection that satisfies the human need for failure and normality. She was unnatural in her looks, as she sat beneath her tree, a queen of her surroundings and Roparzh felt willing to cast himself under her spell.
“I understand that Papa has asked you to paint me.” Her voice was thick with an accent that Roparzh did not quite recognise but he found pleasing to hear. “Are you to start here?”
“No, I am to start by sketching you. I wish to understand…” Roparzh struggled to find the right words, “…how your face works, “ he finished, with a small smile.
She did not return it. She returned to the tome upon her lap and ignored him with a dedication to be admired.
Roparzh did not mind. He was free to sketch her as he wished, and he enjoyed the task. It was no onerous duty to sketch a pretty girl and to be well-rewarded for it. He spent the next few days watching Erzsébet in the garden, sketching the various attitudes of her face, how she held her book and her glasses, how she surveyed what she found before her with those over-large eyes of hers. Alas! He was a romantic soul and he fell in love easily. He had found it with previous subjects of his work – that he found himself hopelessly in love with those that he painted. He had never found it to be a hindrance; it was a help, he thought, for his captivation helped to improve his painting. He wanted his love to shine out from an image and to attract the viewer also.
With Erzsébet, he was fascinated with her eyes and her mouth. Her eyes were large and dark, holding secrets he could never fathom. She was short-sighted and would squint at things most carefully when they were presented to her. Then she would pinch her lips together. Her lips were full and fleshy, almost purplish in colour. Honestly, they almost repulsed him. They did not suit her face. They looked almost obscene, decaying, unhealthy, and yet, he wished so desperately to touch them. He wished to kiss the crest of her lips, those bizarre fleshy things, to see what they tasted like, to know why they looked like that. They hinted at dark, forbidden pleasures, with their rich crimson, almost purple, plumpness.
His sketches were full of images of Erzsébet’s dark eyes and strange lips. They were all he could see when he closed his eyes.
It was not necessary for the subject to sit for a portrait, past the initial stages; when Roparzh had gotten a cartoon of her, it was perfectly perfunctory to complete the task from that. He had decided to be selfish, and ask that she appear in his makeshift studio at eleven in the morning each day for the foreseeable future. He could have her to himself for five hours each day. She would sit before him and he could feast himself upon her image.
On the first morning, she had descended into the room in a gown of her choosing – navy blue silk with broad gold stripes, with a cape and long, elongated stomacher. She had a strangely laboured walk; the side of her right foot dragged a little along the ground and she supported herself with an elegantly carved cane. As she approached the stool in front of his empty canvas, Roparzh was unwillingly reminded of a spider, scuttling across the floor in search of prey. He pushed the image from his mind before it could settle and fester.
Erzsébet settled herself before him, fixing her dark eyes upon his own face. In the soft lighting of the room, the yellowish nature of her skin was emphasised. It looked waxy and unnatural, her flesh appearing to have almost curdled in the carefully controlled sunlight of his studio.
Roparzh had arranged her himself. He had posed her gently, revelling in the brush of his hands against hers, grasping at her waist, arranging her elaborate curls. She did not complain. The only sound she made was a slight influx of breath when his hand alighted upon her hip.
“I’m so sorry,” he had murmured softly, quickly removing the pressure from her side.
“You were not to know. My hip – I was injured, as a child. An unfortunate accident. It healed poorly.” Erzsébet gave a rather grim smile, pursing her lips and showing her white, brittle teeth. They shone out from between swollen red gums. “It is why I stay behind, in the house. Papa does not think me strong enough to venture from here for long periods of time, in case I fall over or something silly. My only trouble is getting in and out of bed.” She broke off with a fluttering laugh, hiding her face as if embarrassed.
“I’m sorry to hear that. But please, don’t move.” Roparzh answered her laugh with a smile of his own, and began to draw a rough image upon the canvas. He would not, of course, paint her skin as how it looked. He could not expect his wages if he were to do so. He would paint her skin as perfect alabaster, with a delicate, feminine flush. The Cardinal wanted her to look an example of vital health and he would deliver her image so.
Erzsébet sat for him for five hours of each day. The two rarely said anything to each other, not much more than perhaps a request for water or to ask her to move a hand back in place. If she knew that this was not standard practise, she did not let on. She made no complaint of sitting in front of him, still and silent, looking straight him. She was content to spend her hours in silence as Roparzh worked before her. He was content to spend his time looking upon her, to stare on her face and her hands, to find excuses to move her slightly, to rest his hands upon hers and to feel the clamminess of her skin.
The painting was coming alive in his hands. There was an incandescent quality to it. As he uncovered it each morning, to look upon the beauty depicted on his canvas, he could feel an aura enveloping him, radiating from the image. There was something alive about it, something he had managed to capture in her overlarge brown eyes. The painting, this wonderful painting, was all that Roparzh could think about. After Erzsébet would leave in the evening, her foot slithering across the wooden floor, he would spend hours before it, changing minute details. He would bolt his dinner to return to the studio to run his eyes over it in the search for imperfections. Other evenings he would sit in front of it, and drink in the image before him as if there was nothing else in the world.
When he went to his cot at night, the eyes would haunt him through his dreams. Some nights he could not sleep as he thought of Erzsébet and her lips and her eyes and how time was passing quickly, too quickly, and then he would never be able to see her again. Roparzh was a painter, and she the daughter of an illustrious cardinal. There was a short time period where they could exist in the same sphere, before they would be separated and she would forget about him. He would never forget her. He could never forget her. But time was ticking on and the portrait needed to be perfect.
Every day, he found a fresh problem with the portrait. It felt like spines embedded in his nail beds each time he found a flaw. He would agonise over how the light fell over the silk of her gown, the tightness of her curls, and above all, whether his pigment versions of Erzsébet’s eyes were a comparable copy of hers.
He did not paint the lips as they appeared. There was something dreadfully crass about them, something loathsome that he did not want to replicate.
He wished fervently into the night that those awful lips would touch him just once. Just once.
Roparzh did not think the portrait anywhere near completion by the time the Cardinal returned to survey his gift. He was summoned as soon as the Cardinal returned in the depths of the night. He flinched internally at the thought of the man who could make or break the rest of his career seeing the evidence of his failure but he could not ignore him. He dressed and washed, his hands shaking, before making his way to the studio.
Cardinal Augustin was a handsome man of middle age. His face was marked and lined with the signs of a man who has lived a long and enjoyable existence. Roparzh dropped into a bow, kissing his ring, and the Cardinal bid him to rise.
“Show me what you have been working on.”
Wishing himself elsewhere, Roparzh lifted the velvet covering from the portrait. The Cardinal came forwards, raising a lorgnette to examine it closely. His eyes moved slowly across the canvas and a slow smile began to form upon his face, etching lines around his eyes and mouth.
“This is excellent – excellent! This is exactly what I wanted. You have done well, Master Roparzh. You shall be well rewarded for your efforts.” The Cardinal straightened up, adjusted his scarlet robes, and his smile was encouraging. “Has my daughter seen it?”
“No, Your Eminence. She has yet to see my poor daubings.”
“If all your daubings are as poor as this, your previous works are going to dramatically increase in value.” The Cardinal’s smile did not waver, as he sent a servant rushing for Erzsébet to join them. She had not been far, as he could hear her coming within moments, the scraping slither of the cork sole of her shoe as it was dragged across wooden floors.
“Papa!” She sounded transported with delight as she came into the room and rushed at the Cardinal like a child. She clasped her arms about his neck tightly and kissed him fully on the lips. “You’ve been gone for so long, I thought you had forgotten all about me. Have you brought me a present?”
“Erzsébet, I brought you my heart, if that is enough.” The Cardinal said softly but she made a noise of protest. She had not even turned round to acknowledge Roparzh or his work, her attention was solely upon her father. “I brought a present from the jewellers, if that will make you happy.”
“Yes, that will be perfect to make me happy. It’s been so dull and I’m so hungry, Papa, I’m always hungry when you leave.” Her voice took on a wheedling tone and now she finally turned to Roparzh, her eyes narrowed. She looked at him, perhaps properly for the first time in months, but there was nothing pleasant in her glance. She was looking at him as she had been starved for months and someone had presented a platter of food before her.
“I promise you something better, soon. Something not so scrawny.” The Cardinal ran a hand through her curls, his tone and manner not entirely fatherly.
“He’s lost most of his weight. I believe he thinks himself in love with me.” She laughed, and it was not the appeal girlish giggle of months ago, but cold, hard and cruel. Roparzh felt the eyes of the Cardinal and his daughter on him and he had the feeling of a mouse that had been drawn into a slow, inescapable trap. Abruptly, fear making him quicker, he turned and fled for the door, grabbing at the handle. He pulled at it desperately, but it had been locked fast. He had been shut in here to await his fate. He scrabbled at the lock until his fingernails broke away and his beds began to bleed. He started to cry as he heard that familiar slither of cork against the grain of wood coming behind him, painfully slowly, measured to draw out the struggle of his impossible escape.
Roparzh did not start to scream until Erzsébet’s brittle white teeth and her repulsive lips tore out his throat.
The gift from her father was a golden collar, studded with large green emeralds. As he placed it around her neck, the metal stuck a little to the blood that had spotted her skin from Erzsébet’s last meal.