There are three things in this world I have been searching for all my life. The first is a child-sized Iron Maiden, whose niche in the attic of Farnsworth Mansion has long been filled with dust; the second is an eighteenth-century Venetian snuffbox said to have belonged to the great Casanova; and the last is a signed copy of the Marquis de Sade’s ‘Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue’, bound in a rare leather. All three belonged to my mother, and how they disappeared after her death has always been as much of a mystery as the reason for her suicide. I have forever cherished the foolish hope that by finding her vanished possessions, I would unlock the secret of why she was taken from me.
So this is how, two months ago, I found myself climbing through the window of a Brixtonian stately home, bumping into furniture and fumbling for the switch of my torch. Despite my steadily dwindling funds, I have always made sure I have a small network of spies at hand to keep me informed of private auctions and of collectors’ deaths, and as a result I often get to be the last person that ever gazes at a collection with the adoration it deserves. Our unfortunate host for the night had a remarkably keen interest for the ways of the Spanish Inquisition, and though I had few hopes of finding my mother’s Iron Maiden there, there was nothing quite like knowing that Pemsi and I would be the last to make use of the collection before it was sold.
While Pemsi amused himself with a gagging mask featuring donkey ears, I proceeded up the oval staircase, gazing in wonder at the gigantic paintings lining the walls, some beautiful and some grotesque. At the top of the stairs was a very large room, housing an intricately carved torture rack the likes of which I had never seen. I was too absorbed in caressing the wood to notice the noise behind me, and was assailed before I could turn round. As I freed myself I dropped the torch, and in the near darkness fumbled for a mace I had seen hanging on the wall. But just as I reached it, my attacker lunged furiously at me, knocked me off my feet and pinned me to the ground. In the struggle, the light of the discarded torch fell across my face and I heard the man gasp. “Juliette!” he cried, loosening his grip. I was so astonished to hear my mother’s name that I froze. Even when the collar of my shirt was slowly pushed away from my neck, baring my shoulder, I did not think to escape. Feverish fingers ran below my collarbone, searching the exposed flesh, and I don’t know how long my attacker straddled me, his breath becoming more frantic, before Pemsi broke the spell.
My frenzied servant boy stumbled into the room, half-blinded by the donkey mask and sporting a pair of thumbscrews he had clearly been unable to rid himself of. As the man straightened up, his gaze met something on the wall, and became incredulous. I too looked behind me, and his disbelief was matched by my own. On the wall, ghostly in the dim light of the torch, was hung what seemed to be a life-size portrait of myself. My mother must have been in her twenties then, and we looked more alike than any photograph had ever hinted at; and yet how different from her I felt in my gentleman’s clothes! She was beautiful, her hair undone, in a white summer dress that opened on her shoulders; reclining on the very same rack I had previously admired, one hand tied to the straps. A small scar ran down her collarbone. The man looked from her back to me, and a flicker of recognition passed on his face. He sharply took his breath. “Justine,” he sighed, and closed his eyes.
I found his name was M., and all he would disclose was that he had recently faked his own death to escape creditors, and that he had painted the portrait of my mother a year before my birth. Then he declared that he would speak no more that night. To have my questions answered, I would have to come back and pose for him, if I was willing. It was difficult to drag Pemsi away from the portrait, for he had not ceased staring at it since his mask had been removed.
I returned the next day, and for many days after. I lay on the rack, warily at first, and then more eagerly, and this became our routine. The variety of ways in which M. asked me to pose was quite baffling. One day I was cradling in my arms a garden gnome of extraordinary features, and the next I was balancing myself on a hobby horse, crop at the ready. However, milkmaid or shepherdess, Venus or Virgin, M. always discarded the sketches. I was secretly glad that he could not decide how it was that he wanted me; I had so many questions that I cherished every delay in the completion of the painting, and the afternoons, spent asking questions while he sketched feverishly, never seemed long enough. And so, stroke by stroke, a Sheherazade in reverse, I gathered small pieces of my mother’s life. It sometimes seemed as if I was operating a slow resurrection, prying her from the depths of M’s memory; and that two beings were emerging, one on the canvas and one in my mind.
I took advantages of these journeys to avail myself of the opiates offered by the locals. I often thought of what splendid evenings could be spent in the area by young chaps eager to found their own Club des Haschischins, as Baudelaire and Gautier had. M. strangely frowned upon any intoxication, and I thought it prudent to keep my pleasures a secret. In these enchanted afternoons, remembering my mother, I sometimes drifted into dreams; with her portrait above me I felt closer to her than I had ever been. February was approaching, and with it the dreaded anniversary of my mother’s death; and it was strangely comforting to think that somebody else in the world grieved my mother too. I started to dream that M. would accompany me to her grave on that fateful day, but no matter how close we became during our meetings, I was never seem to gather sufficient courage to ask.
I wondered sometimes how my mother could have cast such a spell over the man that it still endured, whereas I found it difficult even to speak to him. I could tell even as his gaze ran upon my form that his attention was all for her, and I began to wish my portrait would soon be finished. I had noticed that sometimes when a lock of my hair fell, or when the light came at an angle and made my eyes look a particular shade, M. would suddenly stop and stare; and I felt inexplicably angry then, and jealous of that portrait that still had him in its thrall. I am not quite sure why I started dressing like my mother; for when I found her white dress in a trunk in our attic, I was so shy at first that I concealed it under my riding coat. But seeing it he said nothing; so I took off the coat, and lay on the rack, and no props or disguises were ever offered after that.
Now, when he stared a bit too long, I felt a certain pleasure; and soon I combed my hair like her, and flushed my cheeks as she had done. Every day I relinquished a little more of myself, and in turn every day he would be more troubled, and in his trouble let me glimpse what my mother had seen. As we became closer on these afternoons, Pemsi sent on some opiate errand, I felt my power over him growing; and when I finally asked if he would come to her grave on Valentine’s Day, he was unable to refuse. The day of lovers came, and I waited by the tomb at the end of the garden, wearing the white dress, and my white hair parted; but M. never came.
When I let myself into his study, I found M. in a near stupor, a bottle of absinthe by his side, staring at my canvas. Perhaps it was not wise then to share with him Pemsi’s latest purchase; for the rest of the night remains a blur. All I know is that when I opened my eyes the next morning, M. was lying on the rack, one hand tied to the straps, and the other cradling a paintbrush of the deepest red. My shoulder was throbbing from a fresh cut along the collarbone. A badger was trying to nudge Pemsi awake, my boyservant being shackled unconscious to a whipping post, covered with a bear rug from the waist down. On his chest the drips of a candle had seared the flesh, and on his lap rested an ancient book bound in strange leather. I lifted it with all the care due to a relic; and could not quite believe that I was touching the hallowed pages, nor the words that I were written below the Marquis’s signature. M. had dedicated ‘The Misfortunes of Virtue’ to my mother on the day of my birth. I am not sure whether it was to wave goodbye that M. stretched out his hand, or to give me a warning; but his eyes closed again, and he fell back with a moan.
M. has not yet recovered. I have Pemsi bring him soup, sometimes, but the entry to the study is made more difficult every day by the increasing number of absinthe bottles strewn about on the floor. I am told M. often sits for hours staring at the twin portraits, his fingers caressing something that is no longer there.