The Duchess was displeased with me, her voice conveying much of reproach, although little of anger. I cannot deny being in love with her, yet no more fervently than any man who has encountered her charms, and less so than some who have not.
Although I am the son of a merchant, and an aristocrat by neither descent nor destiny, my skills in the art of politics made me welcome at the great house of the Duke and Duchess. I term the place a great house, as truly the most magnificent I ever did see; and I call it not a home, for when I sought warmth or comfort, I resorted to the village inn, which proffered more of either. A previous Duke had constructed the edifice to impress, with sweeping stone stairs, florid capitals to the columns, and gilding upon all that could be gilded. The Great Gallery contained lofty walls hung all over with fine paintings, three or four above each other, and it was here I met my downfall.
Enjoying the rarity of solitude, I stood before an array of portraits, some featuring familiar personages. I marvelled at the beauty created by skilled artists, their pictures impeccable in every artistic contrivance, save that of resemblance to the subject. The Duchess herself featured an elegantly elongated neck, a whiteness of throat not imitated from nature, and a sentimental tilt of the head which I had never seen, not even upon the occasion of her losing heavily at cards.
My attention was captured by a painting, smaller than most, in a plainer frame than others. Eschewing glorification, the artist had, I was convinced, allowed the person to appear truthfully. I admired the work, not for the skill of its author, but for the loveliness of its subject. If the painter deserved credit, it was for minimising his intrusion between the lady and the viewer. The beautiful young woman had difficulty sitting seriously, and her suppressed smile betrayed a bubbling vivacity which willed the world to laugh and enjoy the very act of being. A series of convictions settled upon me: she was kind, she was gentle, she was graceful; all complementing that love of life.
I resolved to discover the lady, and to meet her. I deduced from the placing of the portrait that it was but recently acquired, and hoped this betokened that it was recently painted. All that remained was to identify her, and therein appeared an obstruction. Every other painting, without exception, was labelled with the name of the subject and the artist, but this was marked with neither.
I decided to think nothing more of the matter, yet for two days thought of nothing but, repeatedly returning to study the portrait, and to dream of the delightful creature represented therein.
I questioned the Duke upon the subject, and he generously accompanied me to view the portrait, but laughed upon seeing it. His younger brother had toured Italy the previous summer, returning with many paintings, including this. He asserted a resemblance to his cousin Letitia; whereas no-one in England could see any such similarity, and the alleged subject was deeply offended. The Dukeís brother was now in America, and not to be quizzed upon the matter, but the Duke kindly made available his man Armstrong, who had accompanied the tour, organised the itinerary, facilitated the travelling, purchased the art works, and arranged their transport. In short, Armstrong performed those tasks which tested aptitude and resourcefulness, unseen and unsung, while the nobleman tackled the more elevated duty of taking a pinch of snuff and languidly declaring ĎI shall have that one.í
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Armstrong remembered the painting being acquired from a dealer in Florence, having originated in the studio of a local artist of no great acclaim, whose name was forgot. He confirmed that it had been but recently produced; a relief, I confess, for it suggested the lady was of an appropriate age to elicit interest, and not of a departed generation.
He asked, with suitable deference, whether I desired to commission a painting from the artist, acknowledging that, if the painter lacked fame, he suffered no insufficiency of skill. I believe Armstrong was amused, while reluctant to reveal his reaction, when he learnt of my determination to find the lady. He cautioned me that she may not, in fact, be a lady, for artists will array a peasant, or a woman of the street, in finery designed to assist the composition of a picture, rather than to reflect the quality of the wearer.
I smiled, confident in my interpretation of the portrait. She was a person of refined manner, whether titled or a commoner, whether rich or of restricted means. I asked Armstrong to consider, how might we discover her, and he indicated that journeying to Florence and finding the painter would be the only certain way to identify her.
I thanked the man for his advice, and astonished him by proposing to travel, whereas he had assumed his comments were a final dismissal of the subject. I asked whether Armstrong would accompany me to Italy, and I could see from the illumination of his visage how the proposition appealed to him.
Dukes being less deferential in their manners than their servants, the Duke laughed heartily at my infatuation with an unwanted portrait, but agreed readily to loan Armstrong for the purpose. In addition, he generously commissioned a miniature copy of the picture, to serve as an aid in looking for the young lady, and a compensation to me should she not be found.
So it was arranged; and we were to leave the draughty splendour of Northern England for the heat and dust of Italy within two weeks.
Thus was the Duchess annoyed. I had rendered her services in the past, for which she had thanked me with the effusiveness, warmth and sincerity which were her hallmark. As well as mollifying creditors, I had travelled to the Continent to rescue her entourage from difficulties. An ability to organise is my principle quality; whereas the Duchess lacks any inclination in that direction, but excels in many virtues which I do not possess.
Now, she desired influence in the current parliamentary crisis, and sought to enlist some persons to speak upon the subject, and others to say nothing. Our most powerful supporter, the heir to the throne, was also the least credible figure on the public stage, commonly reducing all matters to a plaintive whine in favour of his own comfort. I had the honour of being nominated, by the Duchess, to persuade the Prince to remain silent. I was apologetic; I begged her forgiveness; I appealed to her romantic soul to indulge the humanity of my mission. She wondered that I, who dressed sober as a Scotch cleric, would indulge such whimsy. She remained displeased, and I remained resolved to travel.
Before long, Armstrong and I were amidst the colonnaded piazzas, tiled domes, and medieval towers of Florence, making our way through the animated populace to the residence of the agent from whom the treasured portrait had been acquired. The man instantly recognised the picture from my miniature, though it was but a lifeless copy, and assured us with certainty that it represented the cousin of none other than our Duke. When challenged, he dissimulated, and we knew we had encountered our first reverse. However, he claimed to know the painter, named Naddeo, and offered to commission any picture which we might desire. Armstrong stood resolute that we must meet the artist ourselves, reminding the agent our status was that of customers to be indulged, not inquirers to be refused.
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We followed directions to a medieval alleyway, and climbed to the artistís studio in the upper floor of a house. A mean room confined a sullen occupant, cramped with canvas and brushes against the sole window, in a bid to consume the inadequate light. My command of Italian was sufficient to follow, but not to lead, the conversation, which Armstrong conducted with customary aptitude.
The painting was anonymous, because the painter had chosen it to be so. If we provided a model, then he would paint her, and we should know her identity. He was puzzled we should buy an unnamed picture, when we desired one graced with a name. We explained we were fascinated with the subject, and wished to make her acquaintance, at which he shrugged, declaring himself unaware that she desired to make our acquaintance.
Oh, that I, who claimed persuasive powers within the body politic of England, had remained silent, and not spoken so impolitic as I then did: for I offered him money, which angered the Italian, who reminded us he was an artist, and not a procurer of women.
We left, and dined outside in the Italian manner, exploring many alternatives, speculating whether the sitter might be his daughter, or that he could not remember and did not care. Armstrong, when with the Dukeís brother, had met another painter, and in desperation we visited him, learned that he knew Naddeo, and employed some of the same sitters. He was entertained by the invitation to help, examined my miniature, and believed he might find the lady. There were three candidates who could, with a change in colour of eyes or hair, serve for the original. He proposed to call each to his studio, on pretext that we could select one as the subject for a portrait. We attended him upon successive days, Armstrong with equanimity, myself tormented by the turbulence of apprehension, as I approached near to my dream.
The first candidate bore some resemblance to the miniature, but was not the lady, and my spirits sagged. How I yearned to encounter the person behind those vibrant eyes; I dreamt through the sleepless night of her loveliness, believing in the beauty of her disposition as surely as the charm of her appearance.
We met the second possibility: an English girl who danced with the ballet, both handsome and engaging, a fine prospect for a portrait, but not the angel we sought.
I thought my heart should cease beating as we hurried towards the artistís villa on the third day, having been delayed at our hostís. We entered the studio to encounter the back of a young lady, and by the fall of her hair and the grace of her movements, by the innocent vivacity of her conversation, and the carefree music of her laugh, I knew we had found her.
In that instant before she turned, I was seized with unforeseen terror that she would be indifferent to me, or would decline the offer of friendship, or would be already betrothed; and yet more, that she would be alarmed by the absurdity of my search, or be guarded by jealous and violent brothers, or consumed by a contempt of foreigners. She turned her beautiful smile towards me, placing me again at my ease. Not merely because of her charm, but also because, having convinced me in the first instant that I had found the subject of the portrait, she now rendered me equally certain that I had not. A great sense of relief swept over me. The creature in the portrait still existed.
The artist offered to parade more ladies before us, but I declined, for fear we should find her.
We returned to England and the splendid dwelling, being greeted first by a view of honeyed stone against green hills in the evening sun, and then by a Duchess who teased me that I was unwelcome. I strode directly into the Great Gallery, and stood alone, overcome by sadness.
Facing the portrait, I am more convinced than ever of the existence of the beautiful woman with an irresistible personality. I shall continue to dream, and to believe in her qualities; I shall not cease to love her.
Yet, why should I endanger the dream, by seeking her in reality?
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© Roger Woodward, 2014