In response to a number of requests, here’s another story of a heroic harlot; if you haven’t read the first you can find it here.
Monique took the hand of the coachman and lightly stepped down with a “Thank you, Pierre.”
“Will you be requiring the coach again today, Madame?”
“No, Pierre, I cancelled my appointments for today because of the funeral; I’m sure my gentlemen will understand.”
“Very good, Madame. Please accept my condolences on the death of Monsieur Dupuy; I know he was a good and generous friend to you.”
“Thank you, Pierre; Monsieur Dupuy was as generous in death as in life, for he has left me his entire estate.”
“Small condolence for the loss of such a fine gentleman, Madame.”
His words were true and honest, and she smiled at him before turning to enter her house. Pierre was exactly right; though she appreciated Francois Dupuy’s generosity, it was scarce comfort for the loss of a man who had been both a steadfast friend and a reliable client for over twenty-five years. Monique had known him since adopting her trade in her late teens, and he had assisted her with his money, cleverness and connections many times in the ensuing years; she was certain she would never have made it through the War, the Occupation and the Reconstruction without his help.
But now he was gone, and though the lawyer had made it clear that her late patron’s estate was more than large enough to support her in the manner to which she had become accustomed for the rest of her natural life, Monique could not help but wish that she could turn back the clock and somehow prevent the acute apoplectic seizure which had claimed Francois a few days ago. And though she had long known he had no living family, it had never occurred to Monique that she might inherit his considerable wealth, probably because she relied on his always being there despite his advanced age.
“How old was Monsieur Dupuy, Madame?” asked Camille as though she could read her mistress’ mind.
“I’m not sure,” Monique said as she handed the maid her hat and gloves; “older than he seemed, of that I am certain. He seemed to me not more than perhaps sixty, but though he was a native of the city he once mentioned having been born a Spanish citizen, so he must have been over eighty.”
“A good and full life, God rest him. I know I can speak for the others in saying we will all miss him, Madame, both for his kindness to us and his loyalty to you.”
“Thank you, Camille. Please let Giselle know that I don’t want a hot dinner this evening, just a little bread and cheese.”
Monique spent the remaining daylight in her garden; she tried to read but soon found it impossible, so she contented herself with listening to the birds and the street noises beyond the wall, and watching the squirrels collecting acorns for the approaching winter. As she sat her mind kept returning to the mystery of her friend’s life; she knew he had been a businessman who was invested in so many different industries that the bad times of the sixties and seventies which had ruined so many others had proved little more than an annoyance to him. He had seen her once a week without fail for over a quarter of a century, and had helped her to arrange her affairs so carefully that even during those black days when she lost most of her business she still had enough to pay her bills and retain her staff. Political difficulties defeated him no more than economic ones; he was never troubled even by the Beast Butler, and his cloak of immunity was extended to Monique while the other courtesans were having a very bad time.
He was also an accomplished painter, scholar and natural philosopher, and had fascinated her by explaining such diverse subjects as theosophical ideas, Darwin’s theory and the principle behind the telephone in terms she could understand. He had also frequently engaged her in discussions of various moral and philosophical topics which had broadened her outlook considerably beyond that of many of her contemporaries. In more fanciful moments she had imagined him as a wizard out of legend, and indeed he had often performed feats of scientific legerdemain to entertain guests at her parties. As she thought of those happy times now, she found herself weeping for the first time today; here in her garden she could at last openly express her grief for the loss of the man who had been her patron, teacher and protector.
Between her professional engagements and the disposition of Francois’ effects, the next few weeks were busy ones for her; besides all of the mundane possessions to be sold, the art objects to be displayed and the specimens to be donated to museums, there were a multitude of items which defied categorization, many of which she felt it better to leave to experts. But eventually there were only a few items of furniture left, including a large, shallow cedar wardrobe whose key had apparently been mislaid. Since it was too beautiful to risk breaking she had summoned a locksmith, and after he opened it she asked her butler Gaston to pay him while she examined the mysterious contents of the musty cabinet; they consisted entirely of what appeared to be a framed painting wrapped in badly-aged velvet.
It turned out to be a portrait of a young and handsome gentleman, dressed in the Parisian style of just over a century earlier. She was quite familiar with Francois’ technique and this was most assuredly not of his workmanship; in fact, she had never seen a portrait executed with such eerily perfect detail. It was almost more like a photograph than a painting, only in color and endowed with the depth and character so conspicuously lacking in photographs. But as she stood admiring the work of the unknown master who had created it, she was horrified to see the face of the painted Frenchman turn slightly in her direction and even more horrified to hear him speak!
“Madame, I thank you for freeing me from the confines of that dark cupboard! Allow me to introduce myself; my name is Guillame de Montaigne, and I was imprisoned in this painting by sorcerous means in order to effect the theft of my property. I have not seen the light of day since those foul cloths were first draped over me, and pardon my boldness but I am compelled to say I could not have wished for a lovelier vision after all that time.”
His French was impeccable, and she could well believe that the speaker was a nobleman of pre-revolutionary days. But his fine and flowery words could not distract Monique from the absolute wrongness of the experience; for a mere image to speak thus defied every natural law, and she could not help but believe that if Francois had wanted this being released from his canvas prison he would have somehow found the means to do so long before. “If this is true, why were you never freed by the previous owner of the portrait, a good and noble man far wiser in the ways of the world than I?” Her French grammar was as good as his, though colored by a colonial accent.
“Perhaps he knew not the contents of the wardrobe?” the figure suggested helpfully. “In any case, it would take no great wisdom to release me; only speak aloud the inscription on the frame below me.”
Monique’s eyes automatically dropped to the Latin inscription of which he spoke, but some inner voice warned her to avert her gaze before she reached the end; after all, she only had this creature’s word the inscription need be read aloud, and with the cynicism of her profession she was not inclined to trust him. “If Monsieur will forgive my being equally bold as himself, why should I do this? What would it profit me?”
His eyes narrowed, and Monique fancied she now noted a hint of cruelty in them; then he chuckled and said, “Ah, so I am dealing with a woman of custom! Name your price, and I swear I will pay it immediately upon my release.”
“I have never before performed this sort of service, and know not the customary price.”
He chuckled again, “And a shrewd one as well! As you have discerned I am not without magical powers, and indeed was only defeated by trickery. Very well then, you shall have riches beyond those of anyone else in your nation.”
Monique shrugged. “I was already wealthy before my good patron passed beyond this world, and he has endowed me with more than I could spend in ten lifetimes.”
“Very well, then, power; I shall make you a noblewoman, even a queen.”
“You have indeed slept long, Monsieur la peinture; we do not have nobles in this country, nor in yours any longer either. And none of their power kept their heads and necks together once the mob declared it should be otherwise. Besides, no right-thinking man wants power over his fellows, and despite what some of your sex claim we women are no less capable of moral judgment.”
The eyes narrowed again, and Monique detected the faintest hint of desperation in the voice. “Youth, then! You are still quite beautiful, Madame, but unless I have lost my eye for woman you are above forty, and despite your best efforts the ravages of age will not be kept at bay for many years longer.”
His words penetrated her like a dagger; she knew full well that he spoke truly, and that ere long not even the most expensive cosmetics nor the most advanced treatments of modern medicine would serve to arrest the aging process. But she now knew with certainty that this creature was a thing unholy, and that no good could possibly come of a bargain with him no matter how tempting the reward. So she said simply, “Age and death come to all, and I have enjoyed the benefits of comeliness longer and more thoroughly than most of my sisters.”
Truly desperate now, the figure barked “Love then! Your sisters have husbands to comfort them in their old age, Madame la courtisane, but not you, I think. I shall secure the permanent affections of the man of your choice for you!”
Monique then laughed, a true and honest laugh of relief. She curtsied to the portrait and said, “I thank you, Monsieur, for teaching me that devils are no wiser than mortal men. For you must be a very great fool indeed if you hope to gain advantage over one of my profession with the promise of love.” She then returned the velvet to its place around the painting; the image’s scream was suddenly cut off the moment the drape fell into place as though the spell had been broken. She then bound it with cords and shouted, “Gaston!”
He appeared in moments with a worried look. “Yes, Madame?”
“Burn this foul thing in the garbage pit at once; it offends my eyes!”
“At once, Madame!” Gaston did not question; she followed him down to the yard, watched as he doused it liberally with oil and set it alight, then kept vigil late into the night until the last ember had faded. Monique did not know why Francois had never destroyed the painting himself; she could not believe he was unaware of its presence in the wardrobe, so perhaps he was somehow unable to destroy it. But whatever the reason, Monique at last felt as though she had repaid her dear friend a little of his unending kindness, and in some small way earned her legacy.