Monsieur Jacques had never had to paint in such proportions before. His brush erect above the canvas, he paused, deliberated, then decided to begin with a more manageable area of his subject’s anatomy.
His subject was posed gracefully upon a marble pedestal, his skin gleaming bronze beneath the white folds of linen, his laurel-crowned brow lifted heavenward. Between brow and heaven was extended a manly hand, rough and calloused from hard labor, yet surprisingly sensitive. A cut pomegranate balanced heavily upon his long tapered fingers. Each seed gleamed redly from within the open wound of the fruit. It was the hand of The Stable Boy.
A leopard lay at the Stable Boy’s feet in a bushel of spilt chestnuts. A collar, studded with amethysts and other gems of some mysterious allegorical import, encircled the creature’s neck; it read, “Tatiana.” One paw lay upon an elaborately bound volume: Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics.” Setting down his brush for a moment, Jacques approached the tableau. He set a bronze sextant at The Stable Boy’s right foot. Then, after a moment’s consideration, he replaced the pomegranate with half a melon. “What the hell is this painting about?” wondered The Stable Boy.
Pierre returned to his canvas, trembling as he swirled his brush in the rich pigments and applied them to the canvas. His previous works had all involved giraffes, which made their production quite expensive. The ringmaster of the London Circus—that weaselly little degenerate!—drove a hard bargain. He felt, however, that the leopard allowed for a much higher degree of metaphorical coherence. London’s aristocratic intelligentsia would fall to their knees at the unveiling. It would be his masterpiece.
On the pedestal, The Stable Boy stifled his boredom. It was the fifth modeling he had done since the Viscount and Viscounta wess had left for Italy, leaving him in a rage of frustration and financial desperation. In order to pay his room and board at the inn, he had been forced to succumb to the inept fumblings of pallid, emaciated men in too-tight breeches, all calling themselves “artists.” Invariably these artists found reasons to constantly touch him, rearranging that arm, this hand, that burnished curl. This, The Stable Boy knew, would be the last time. He growled softly to himself.
Tatiana purred in response. They had taken to each other immediately.
“Well,” said Monsieur Jacques, “I suppose that—well, I do believe that will suffice for the moment, for the day at least, I should think, yes.”
“In other, fewer words,” said the Stable Boy, “you’ve finished.”
“Haha, quite, yes, that’s exactly what I’ve done,” said Monsieur Jacques. “Well put. Fewer. You’ve done some excellent work, standing still, I mean...” He trailed off, lost once more in the contemplation of the Stable Boy’s exquisite form. “Oh, you know, here are your wages.” Monsieur Jacques reached into a sizeable purse and withdrew five gold coins.”
“And there, Tatiana, is your dinner,” said the Stable Boy, slapping the leopard on the haunch. Tatiana growled with satisfaction and leapt into the air. By the time she had returned to the ground, her teeth were buried in Monsieur Jacques’ neck. The artist made a small gurgling sound as bits of him disappeared down the leopard’s throat.
“Good leopard,” said the Stable Boy, as he hoisted the money purse into a wheelbarrow. He exited the studio.
Outside: London, the greatest city in the world and undisputed center of all creation. Pushing the wheelbarrow before him, The Stable Boy set off through the bustling streets. He attracted little attention. Who would distinguish him from among the fishmongers, tinkers, tailors, beadles, gentlemen, and dogs? Quickly, he made for one of the city’s more disreputable neighborhoods, where he entered a brothel.
Lamps flickered weakly in the smoke-filled room. The floor was covered in sawdust, spit, tar, and drink. The Stable Boy’s eyes were some time in adjusting to the gloom. But, yes, there he was. It was hard to make him out in the tangle of fleshy limbs that occupied the loveseat in the far corner, but Oliver J. Swindleton had kept up his end of the agreement.
“Ollie,” cried The Stable Boy. “I’ve got it. It’s time to go.”
“Wot?” squeaked Ollie from beneath three prostitutes. “Ew in the bloody ’ell is in’eruptin my intimate congress wif these gen’le ladies? I swear I will maim you wif my own two hands, I swear—”
“Ollie,” said The Stable Boy. “It’s me. I have the money.”
“Blazes!” he cried, extracting himself from the pile. “Oi didn’t realize ew it was, sir. ’Ow on earth did you find all that coin?” Ollie had seen the Stable Boy’s wheelbarrow.
“I worked out an arrangement with my employer, Monsieur Jacques,” said the Stable Boy
“The estimable picture maker? Why, I do believe that he is the most well-respected ar-teest in awl of London.”
“Was,” said The Stable Boy. “He was the most well-respected painter in London.” He paused so as to permit Ollie—hardly the greatest intellect in the brothel—a few futile moments of contemplation. “Shall we be off?” said The Stable Boy.
“Yes...of course,” said Ollie.
The stench of fish, sweat, and miscellaneous refuse rose up from London’s docks and met the fitfully descending sunlight halfway. With their wheelbarrow rattling along, Ollie and The Stable Boy moved quickly towards the H.M.S. Visconti. The Stable Boy had met the trading vessel’s wizened old Captain in a tavern on Fleet Street the previous week. After a night of drink, argument, and backgammon, The Stable Boy had convinced the Captain to take on two strangers with no papers. The Captain’s asking price had, of course, been outrageous. But now Monsieur Jacques’ money could be put to use.
Ollie and The Stable Boy boarded the ship.
“We’ll make Sicily before the week is out,” said The Stable Boy.