Tag Archives: 17th century

The Dear Loved Boy

The romantic is cursed with a delicate type of blindness, a reckless folly that begins by meaning no harm yet which in the end will taint its imprudent victim with a painful destiny.

“He gained the love of ladies gay
None e’er to him weas coy
Ah, woe is me, I mourn the day for dear Gilderoy”

The romantic sentiment is made from a fey alchemy: soft feelings, gentle indiscretions.  It is responsible for the quiet dismissal of reality; replacing it with an insidious fancy that invades the dull fabric of reason like a golden thread.

“With muckle (much) joy we spent our prime
Till we were baith sixteen
And oft we passed the langsome (long) time
amang the leaves sae green”

Admittedly such a deadly attitude is not as common now as it once was.  This is a cynical world.  But centuries before it was not so much the case. Imagination was different – like prisms, thoughts of love and romance was split like gems to achieve an entirely new purity, a new light.  Men saw a woman’s pale skin as a fleshly metaphor for virtue and truth – though the feminine tint was laced with arsenic.  And women saw romantic possibilities in the dark eyes, slim figure and the feel of restrained muscular strength of her gentleman as he held her on the dance floor.  This was a generation easily deceived by their feelings, more than willing to travel the labyrinth of ardor that stretched before them.

“O, that he still had been content
with me to lead his life,
But ah, his manful heart was bent
to stirring feats of strife,”

Patrick Roy McGregor, known as Gilderoy, Gilleroy, Gilder Roy or Gillie Ruadh (“the Red-haired Lad”) was an outlaw of democratic tastes:  he was a robber, a blackmailer, a cataran (cattle thief) and a murderer.  He and his band of criminals terrorized the lands throughout Aberdeen during the early 17th century.

But he was pretty.  His white skin and auburn hair were not reconciled to his violent tendencies.  And the ladies loved his beauty and were happily blinkered from his misguided daring.  He was ‘bonnie’, ‘handsome’ and ‘winsome’.  Their yearning and tributes appeared in stories, ballads, prose and verse.

“My Gilderoy, baith far and near
was feared in every toon,
And boldly bore awa’ the gear
of many a lowland loon (peasant, rogue)”

The ‘arch rebel’ was finally apprehended in 1636.  McGregor stood trial in Edinburgh with his associates John Forbes, Alistair Forbes, Callum Forbes, George Grant, John McColme, John McGregor McEane, Gillespie McFarlane, Alistair McInneir and Ewin McGregor alias Accawisch.

“At length, with numbers, he was ta’en,
my handsome Gilderoy”

The charges were many; a miscellany of achievements of a dubious personality:  “tressonable usurpatioun of our Souerane Lordis royal power”,  “pat violent handes in the persones of the said Alexander (Hay) and his wyfe, tuik thame captives and prissoneris, for thair ransome and libertie”, involvement in a number of “crewall slauchters” or murders.    His choice of victims was an egalitarian one, preying on common folk, lairds and ministers.  He was supposedly betrayed by his mistress Peg Cunningham, and was able to stab her to death before being arrested.    Even more flamboyant tales claim that he robbed Cardinal Richelieu and picked Oliver Cromwell’s pocket…but a ruffian’s accomplishments had their limits.

He was found guilty on July 29.  The pleasantly fitting Scottish word for verdict (“doom”) was that McGregor be “drawin backwardis upone ane cairt…to the mercat (market) cross of Edinburgh.” Along with John Forbes he would be hung until dead on a gibbet that was considerably higher than that of their associates.  They were also to have their “..heidis be strukin af from thair bodies, with their richt handis, and the said Gilroy his heid and richt hand to be affixit on the eist or netherbow poirt of Edinburgh, and the said John Forbes his heid and richt hand to be put upone the wast poirt thairof.  (heads be struck off from their bodies with their right hands, and the said Gilroy his head and right hand to be affixed on the east or netherbow port of Edinburgh, and the said John Forbes his head and right hand to be put upon the west port thereof)

“To Edinburgh they led him there,
and on a gallows hung;
They hung him high above the rest,
he was sae trim a boy”

Such was his fame that a garden of ballads blossomed directly after his execution, such as “The Scotch Lovers Lamentation:  or Gilderoy’s Last Farewell…To an excellent new Tune, much in request”    Such popularity speaks of an ill-conceived pride, a stumbling thrill, a naïve delight…the ingredients of a misdirected affection. There are times when a passion gallops like an unrestrained fever, and its victim is unprepared to deal with the machinations of its subtle sickness – the extravagance of undisciplined emotion.

Thus having yeilded up his breath,
I bore his corpse away;
With tears that trickled for his death,
I washed his comely clay;
And safely in a grave sae deep
I laid the dear loved boy,
And now forever I must weep for winsome Gilderoy.

Jacobite broadside - Gilder Roy in his genuine Highland Garb.jpg

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Sanctuary

In many ways, buildings are like people.  As they grow older, they wrinkle, creak and groan.  They become weak.  With age, other people lose interest in them.  They move away, taking away all care and affection with them.

But like people who have become more and more antique, buildings of a certain age become mysterious and eccentric.  They harbor odd secrets; hidden twists and kinks that defy explanation.  Or if there is an explanation, it sometimes lingers close to the unbelievable.  One walks timidly towards its shore, as if it were a lake made of fire.

During these contemporary times we quake with fear.  And in our anxiety we turn to technology to protect our homes.  They are monitored with wires, alarms and machinery; they are locked, bolted and secured with fences and gripped with steel.  We see our threats in the night; we hear the footsteps – the hand on the door, the nails on the window.

But before all the modern devices, the gears and utilities, the engines and the tools, during a vague, historical time, the enemy was more nebulous.  It was part of an obscure and ethereal population, one which cast no shadow and possessed no dimension. It was born from the elements, lived in the shadows and huddled in spectral corners.

So the weaponry that people resorted to was odd, symbolic.  They were designed to pierce the haunting spirits that cast no reflection; the invisible wraiths that gathered outside, their breath collecting on the windows like troubled clouds.  They hid them in the depths of their homes, in the comforting places:  inside hearths, below beds, nestled in the frameworks and timbers of doorways.

Witch bottles, filled with an assortment of curiosities and charms that represented the earth, the body and the home, would be buried deep in the structure of a building.  Witch bottles could contain sea water, earth, sand, feathers, flowers, salt, oil, vinegar or wine:  fragrant, worldly and safe.  Sometimes urine, hair, nail clippings, bone and blood would be added – the remnants of humanity.  Each bottle had its own complex recipe to counteract the nefarious magical schemes of all evil spirits.

The dried bodies of cats have also been found within a home’s walls – posed courant, fleshless and feral.  Their desiccated muscles are still tense – prepared to attack whatever malevolence that would dare permeate the wood and brick of their arid coffin.

Entire skeletal menageries reclined deep inside a building’s heart, like benign parasites.  Rats and horses’ skulls kept their strange and silent vigil, waiting for the inevitable, invisible invasions.

A 14th century English saint once claimed that he had trapped the devil in a boot – the monster’s acrid breath coiling between leathers and singeing the laces.  Ever since then shoes have been closeted in chimneys, under floors, above ceilings, around doors and windows, in the roof – homely icons symbolic of humanity born of the earth.  These waiting collections were the scuffed charms used against the evil machinations surrounding the home trapped inside dark perimeters.

The only outward sign that a house was under spiritual protection were the “witch marks” that were tattooed across rafters and the wooden frameworks of fireplaces and bed chambers.

An assortment of circles, triangles and crosses invoking the Virgin Mary, vague geometric shapes knitted together to create cat’s-cradle-like “demon traps”, they have been found in buildings such as Knole House, the Fleece Inn and Sevenoaks.

Marks have been found scorched and scratched into the dense oak beams beneath the floors of 17th century Knole, in particular near the fireplace, a common entrance for witches and demons with no fear of flame and ember.

Originally built during the 1400’s, the Fleece Inn is laid equally thick with such traps – they have also been found by the door, to keep inopportune devilish visitors out.

In the early 17th century, the great house at Sevenoaks was being prepared for the anticipated visit of James I.  It was shortly after the failed Gunpowder Plot of November 1605 and was a time of national paranoia:  it was not enough that the conspirators were condemned to a traitor’s dreadful tripartite death, or that the new tradition of the effigies of Guy Fawkes burning merrily had been born.  The carpenters working to construct the new state rooms of Sevenoaks took no chances, carving witch marks and demon traps in the bed chambers that had been prepared for James.

Embargoed to 0001 Wednesday November 5 A view of the 17th century 'witch marks' hidden beneath floorboards of National Trust property Knole in Sevenoaks, Kent, which were discovered during a major repair and conservation programme currently underway at the property. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday November 4, 2014. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

They are scattered across countrysides and crooked streets – the old, whispering houses, with their mysteries rattling deep inside them or scored across their fragrant skin.  It is said that some are haunted, and perhaps they are – by owners or patrons not ready to vacate the comforting buildings with their walls of patterned woods.  Or maybe they are troubled by the spirits and familiars that still struggle in the demon traps that were set for them long ago.

The Girl’s Pearl Earring

I have always had an affinity for pearls.  It could be because the pearl is my birthstone.  Or because I once read that it symbolized “tears of joy and sorrow”:  its split personality struck me as both tragic and evocative.  Perhaps it is its silky richness – its delicate decadence.  Or just maybe it is the pearl’s origins – in the belly of an oyster, rooted in its bed far beneath the sea.

Jan Vermeer’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring” sounds like such a humble thing; yet it is a miracle of color and light. There are no lines in the painting, no harsh borders:  only subtle frontiers that are seen by the mind as much as they are by the eye.  The juxtaposition of texture and shadow is as imperceptible as the descending twilight that softens yet changes the landscape.  The touch that molded her face is as ethereal as gossamer.

pearl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vermeer painted with light as if it stood in waiting pools on his palette; it is the defining grace of the portrait.  It stretches in blue valleys across the girl’s turban.  It glows like a melted star from her lower lip.  It warms her moon-like face in a hushed, radiant patina.  But most of all, it is the creating force; the central, incandescent life of her pearl earring.

The singular bauble hangs like a dainty planet, stolen from its galaxy and forced to glow in metallic glory by itself.  Softly oval, the pearl’s gentle curves nestle against the acquiescent shadows of the girl’s neck.  Within it is a world of elusive prisms:  silver, brown, gold, lavender, blue.  The colors are stirred together to create an object as warm as an alchemist’s elixir yet cool enough to calm the rich flesh of a young girl.

The girl’s earring must have weighed heavily from her ear – as if it were trying to get her attention.  If she listened, what would she hear?  The painful throbbing of the steel hook that had inelegantly punctured her earlobe – the tincture of rust that now ran through her blood?  Or perhaps she heard something else.  Perhaps she heard the sound of her treasure’s parents: childless, buried at sea and softly crying.

Stand and Deliver

The 17th century always had the appearance of a ripe old bawd:  good-natured, boisterous, and with a penchant for a pretty rogue.  Overflowing the stays of the 16th century, and with no interest for the baroque frippery of the century that would follow, the 1600’s were born out of taverns and plague, plots and intrigues, typhoid and flowers.

It was a lively time; one that welcomed audacity that was tempered with grace – a type of messy elegance that was not out of place on a muddy road, balancing instruments of persuasion, bullets primed.

It was the time of the highwayman.

These ‘gentlemen of the road’ were common to all centuries, but they seemed to thrive with a guilty panache during this one.  And as the 17th century seemed to possess a special bravura, it saw the blooming of a special kind of flower, ragged yet fragrant:  the highwaywoman.

There was the shoemaker’s daughter, Mary Frith:  ‘The Roaring Girl’, branded four times for thievery, escaping the gallows by the fortuitous means of a 2,000 pound bribe.  In her supposed ‘Confession’ she stated:  “I held very good Correspondence now also with those Grandees of this function of Thievery”.
Mollcutpurse

Joan Phillips, respectable, beautiful and “…eminent for picking of pockets and shoplifting at all country fairs and great markets…”  Hung in 1685, her body was gibbeted:   left to rot in a cage to serve as a deterrent to all would-be miscreants, as well as making sure that it could not be removed for proper burial by her friends.

The ‘Wicked Lady’, Lady Katherine Ferrers, was an aristocrat and an heiress – her portrait shows a face framed with curls and pearls and  a smile that was both dangerous and discreet .  Married at 14, she took to the road in her husband’s absence – whether out of boredom or in order to build up her stumbling fortunes it has never been said.  A whimsical combination of the two situations would be the best guess.  Legend has it that she was shot during a robbery and later died of her wounds.  She was 26 years old.

Katherine_Ferrers

Now, there is a ballad from around this time – known as “Sovay” or “Sylvia” or “Sylvie” – that tells a very pretty story.

It is about a young woman, about to be married, who is determined to test the loyalty of her fiancé.  She comes upon an idea, one that is typically robust, born from the earthy and daring mindset of the 1600’s.

Her lover, who has been away, is traveling back into town – she knows when, which coach he will be taking, down which rutted path it will be traveling.  The clever lady has decided to dress as a highwayman and waylay this vehicle, shivering with harness and brass traces protesting, and demand all goods that are held inside.

Should her young man willingly give up all his possessions, including his engagement ring, she would shoot him dead.

It is easy to imagine her standing thus:  the sweeping velvet hat, feathers curling to her shoulders, a dark cape reaching to her chin, heavy boots obscuring the feminine sweep of calf and thigh.  Brazen lace cuffs cowered in the breeze that raced unimpeded across the flat coaching road, obscuring hands that fingered two flintlock pistols.  It is easy to hear the clear, brave voice state the iconic demand, both romantic and criminal:  “Stand and deliver!”

Her lover did not.  And they lived happily ever after.

“I did intend and it was to know
If that you were me true love or no
For if you’d have give me that ring she said
I’d have pulled the trigger I’d have pulled the trigger and shot you dead.”

Stand and Deliver

The 17th century always seemed like a ripe old bawd:  loud, boisterous and with a penchant for a pretty rogue.  Overflowing the busks of the 16th century, and with no interest for the baroque frippery of the century that would follow, the 1600’s were born out of taverns and plague, plots and intrigues, typhoid and flowers.

It was a lively time; one that welcomed audacity that was tempered with grace – a type of messy elegance that was not out of place on a muddy road, balancing instruments of persuasion, bullets primed.

It was the time of the highwayman.

These ‘gentlemen of the road’ were common to all centuries, but they seemed to thrive with a guilty panache during this one.  And as the 17th century seemed to possess a special bravura, it saw the blooming of a special kind of flower, ragged yet fragrant:  the highwaywoman.

There was the shoemaker’s daughter, Mary Frith:  ‘The Roaring Girl’, branded four times for thievery, escaping the gallows by the fortuitous means of a 2,000 pound bribe.  In her supposed ‘Confession’ she stated:  “I held very good Correspondence now also with those Grandees of this function of Thievery”.

Mollcutpurse

Joan Phillips, respectable, beautiful and “…eminent for picking of pockets and shoplifting at all country fairs and great markets…”  Hung in 1685, her body was gibbeted:   left to rot in a cage to serve as a deterrent to all would-be miscreants, as well making sure that it could not be removed for proper burial by her friends.

The ‘Wicked Lady’, Lady Katherine Ferrers, was an aristocrat and an heiress – her portrait shows a face framed with curls and pearls and a smile that is both dangerous and discreet.  Married at 14, she took to the road in her husband’s absence – whether out of boredom or in order to build up her stumbling fortunes it has never been said.  A whimsical combination of the two situations would be the best guess.  Legend has it that she was shot during a robbery and later died of her wounds:  she was 26 years old.

Katherine_Ferrers

Now, there is a ballad from around this time – known as “Sovay” or “Sylvia” or “Sylvie” –  that tells a very pretty story.

It is about a young woman, about to be married, who is determined to test the loyalty of her fiancé.  She comes upon an idea, a typically lively one, born from the earthy and daring mindset of the 1600’s. 

Her lover, who has been away, is traveling back into town – she knows when, which coach he will be taking, down which rutted path it will be traveling.  The clever lady has decided to dress as a highwayman and waylay this vehicle, shivering with harness and brass traces protesting, and demand all goods that were held inside.

Should her young man willingly give up all his valuables, including his engagement ring, she would shoot him dead.

It is easy to imagine her standing thus:  the sweeping velvet hat, feathers curling to her shoulders, a dark cape reaching to her chin, heavy boots obscuring the feminine sweep of calf and thigh.  Brazen lace cuffs cowered in the breeze that raced unimpeded across the flat coaching road, obscuring hands that fingered two flintlock pistols.  It is easy to hear the clear, brave voice state the demand, both romantic and criminal:  “Stand and deliver!”

Her lover did not.  And they lived happily ever after.

“I did intend and it was to know

If that you were me true love or no

For if you’d have give me that ring she said

I’d have pulled the trigger I’d have pulled the trigger and shot you dead.”

“Injury and Immodesty”

Frances Howard was a bad woman.  She had a lurid history and a luscious wickedness that wrapped around her, keeping her name warm for nearly four hundred years.

This portrait of her was painted in 1615, a year before she was tried for murder.

She is 25 yeard old, her soft face colored with roses and chalk – the crushed petals flooding her cheeks, the powder a chaste snow covering her immodest skin.  The neckline of her gilded dress dives into oblivion, and scarlet bands curl around her arms like velvet chains.  The outline of her mouth is a mad, curving journey – a seductive flight.  The expression in her narrowed eyes is sly, cunning:  they speak of sins completed and sins under consideration.  This was a lady who winked at her reputation as she bid it farewell.

Frances was married when she was 14 years old to Robert Devereux, the 3rd Earl of Essex, who was one year her junior.  This marriage was a celebration of adult avarice:  woven into the names of Howard and Devereux were castles, land, all that England had to offer.  Yet when the children's hands were joined, they were cold and empty. But they were only old enough for a marriage on paper, and they were quickly separated; Frances would not see her husband again until she was 19.  But by then she had lost interest.

Frances had become a careless, flaunting beauty – famous in a court well known for its foolishness and decoration.  She had also fallen in love with Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset.  Gossips said that Frances had consulted alchemists and astrologers, men of numbers and planets who read their equations in the sky.  It was said that they made for her "love-philters" which would encourage her husband's impotence, enabling her to start the proceedings for an annulment.

Any accusation of impotence must be followed by an examination of the woman to confirm that she was virgo intacta.  Frances was examined by a cadre of matrons and midwives and was judged intact.  But as she requested to be veiled, "for modesty's sake", the rumor began that another woman was used as a substitute:

"This Dame was inspected but Fraud interjected
A maid of more perfection
Whom the midwives did handle whilest the knight held the candle
O there was a clear inspection"

Yet the annulment was granted, in September 1613.  Frances and her lover were married three months later.

Many whispered, but only one spoke out loud.  Sir Thomas Overbury, Somerset's closest frirend, violently opposed the affair.  He told Carr that his intended was "noted for her injury and immodesty."  His opinion did not go unheard: Frances' powerful Howard relations intervened and had Overbury imprisoned in the Tower, where he died under mysterious circumstances.

Mystery eventually became murder.  Stupid and wily, Frances had her opponent poisoned – possibly with a cocktail of sulfuric acid and copper vitriol.  This violent concoction was nestled in a collection of cakes and tarts given to a gaoler in Frances' pay.  They were left for Overbury, who no doubt consumed the sweets happily.

Frances admitted her part in the affair and though Robert maintaianed his innocence, they were both condemned to death.  They were pardoned, but remained in the Tower.  For six years Frances felt her skin become rancid and coarse; she would watch the moving tapestry of straw and insects at her feet; she felt her passions evaporating into the foetid air.

This was the history of the bad woman – lustful, ambitious; sophisticated and spoiled:  condemned with that "good face, which had brought to other much misery and to herself greatness which ended with much unhappiness." 

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The Outsider

When I was in college, my personal dramas were clumsy and obscure.  All they would do was confuse people, so I kept my strident affectations to myself.

I used to call myself Catherine of Braganza.

It wasn't because I was Portuguese.

It wasn't because I was Catholic.

It wasn't because I was married to an adulterer.

It was because I felt unwanted, awkward and ignored.  I was pathetic.  As she was.

Catherine came to England in 1662 to be married. 

She sailed on the deceitful winds of political trafficking; she watched the contracts and alliances that bound her destiny sinking into the ocean that carried her:  dim, melting promises.

She was plain, devout, modest – and the English court in the mid-17th century was no stage for such a dainty player.  Cromwell was dead, Charles II was king, and the palace of St. James had become a harem of wives, whores and actresses.   Dukes were pimps and their duchesses were willing and waiting toys. 

Catherine had been raised in a convent.  Her life had been quiet, almost servile.  Yet one month after she had arrived, Charles' current mistress, Barbara Villiers, gave birth to a son.  When she heard the news, the shocked queen was carried away in a swoon, overcome by a nun's condemnation.  Yet for all of Catherine's well-bred protestations, it was Barbara, from a loyal but poor family, who lay bleeding in the royal bed.

The new queen was lost in a jungle of gossip and immorality.  She was surrounded by languid, dissipated women:  a demimonde circled around her, wearing gowns that receded from fragrant bosoms like silken tides, with hooded eyes that glittered with a constellation of sensuality.

The names of Catherine's competitors survive, evocative memories of a time when women decorated the court like cats – glinting, sleek, purring with danger:

Nell Gwyn – an actress at fifteen, and a beloved commedienne.  She specialized in 'breeches roles':  wearing male costume to show off her pleasing, hidden figure.  She became the royal mistress at eighteen.  On his deathbed, Charles pleaded, "Let not poor Nelly starve".

Moll Davis (according to Pepy's wife, "the most impertinent slut in the world") – was another royal choice taken from the theater.  Moll was a clever singer and dancer; from the stage lit with candles, above the tiny cries of the orange girls, she was a tempting bundle of wit, garters and petticoats.

Louise de Keroualle was a lady-in-waiting to Catherine, with a face that was both innocent and captivating.  There seemed to be no sin in her genteel prettiness.  But her lips were voluptuous; and her eyes narrowed as if she was appraising the worth of a jewel, a gown, a man.

In total, these ladies – and others – bore the king eleven illegitimate children.  Catherine miscarried twice – she was the king's 'barren queen'.

Many people have written about this world; one that teemed with such luscious enjoyment.  But when I was in college, I chose to ignore it and spent my time pitying myself as well as pitying the sepia memory of Queen Catherine, one more outsider.

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A Calculation of Light

It is a symphony of sickly colors.  A random collection of rich, carved things painted with an understanding that is dour and cold.  It has the strange, reflective glow of a world beneath the sea – colored with pastes of seaweed, shells and yellow, altered light.  It could be the remains of an underwater meal, where Neptune had just risen from the table, blue and sated.

It is this altered light, as controlled and understood as a domestic animal, which has made this painting famous.  Light's subtle movements are calculated, traced and pinned to the canvas like butterflies stolen from the air.  It travels in thin, hot rivers along the edges of a glass, pooling in the concave base of a chalice, and is still and green like a mossy lake at the bottom of a wine goblet.  Reflections of window panes, portals of illumination, float through these murky waters.

One expects such clear and inquisitive lighting to emanate from the sun – the most perverse star of all:  bright during the day, covered and silent like a child at night.  Instead, it reclines in a globule of tinted oil, poised at the end of a paintbrush – a daytime star ready to fall.

Hidden in this landscape of food, glass and silver are signs of momento mori: reminders of the vanities of life in the midst of this tranquil luxury.  These are subtle warnings:  the broken timepiece - its winding key dangling helplessly in a black, empty space.  A glass has fallen on its side, the broken pieces scattered on the plate where the slice of pie waits to be finished, rendering dangerous a symbol of the lush, satisfied life.

Across this scenery – a map of extravagance and admonition, mountainous with fine linen, mysterious, dark and flourishing - light falls with its myriad definitions.  Walls and glasses drip with the ocean's wavering reflections.  Silver melts into a luminous shadow.  Fabric breathes like a sleeping animal.  Darkness becomes a recluse and retreats into its resentment, as light spreads across the inanimate country, particles of the atmosphere touching angles, curves and corners – a life-giving invasion.

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Condemned To The Ground

Today it is little more than the remains of a decorative pretension, a thin fabric caught on time's sharp edges.  The stitching has come undone, exposing the soft underside like a delicate wound.  Still, the unknown artist's work retains its allure, even as it continues its charming decline.  And the memories still live within the shadow of its whimsical architecture.

Over 300 years ago this dainty shoe, with a shape as unnatural and modish as the most expensive of ladies, was a dainty and expensive treasure.  The colors were so light, they dared to evaporate into the living air, and merge into the perfumed, witty atmosphere of 17th century Paris.  The slope of leather was decorated with an avalanche of ice blue ruching and lace.  The decorations tumbled and grappled until the landscape was littered with their delightful meddling.

But despite all its elegant weightlessness and refined geography, it was condemned to the ground: living its useless and beautiful life on unswept, polished acres.

And for all its potential for mischief, the shoe was only seen rarely:  winking saucily from behind oceans of embroidered hems, then receding as the frothy tides returned.  Or there could be a thrilling but brief exposure as the lady was being handed down from her carriage.  Perhaps they held a message:  in the turn of the heel or the feline arch of the toe during an otherwise sedate curtsy.

There was once a hidden language in the small things – a fan, a calling card, a flower, a patch, a shoe; in the excitement of subtle daring.  And there was once a time when Beauty was a formidable predator; when it waited patiently and secretly.

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The Lady In My Mailbox

The other day, when I reached for my letters, I felt a folded newspaper amongst them.  I slowly pulled it away from its sealed brethren, and out of the little brass house marked with my last name.

It revealed itself minutely, a quiet dusk of black, white and gray.  There were stars and crosses on its cover – confusing and tantalizing.  There were lines that might have formed languages; or possibly they explained the twelve astrological legends.  There were curved expanses of white and pink – a mathematical drama of color and pattern.  What did it all mean?

Finally, a pair of heavy-lidded eyes, yawning under their awning, ended my speculating.  They were a deep, unreachable blue – hypnotic lamps – and stared from a chemical field of white lead and arsenic. 

Her shining, choking bodice swept low and a sapphire brooch hung over it like a dark sun.

My lady's hair was frizzed and powdered, and jeweled galaxies wound through the cloudy curls.  Her ears, pierced by barbarous means, were hung with twin pearls – reflected moons, chaste and desirable.  Her head – separate from an uncomfortable, misunderstood body – reclined on a starched platter of wire and lace.

No one knows for sure who painted this portrait, nor the identity of this pale lady.  From the cover of my newspapaer she watched me, trapped in a madness of 17th century ornamentation.  I studied the silver and black calligraphy that traveled from shoulder to hem; from a breastplate of iron and bone to a skirt shaped by a hidden, wooden cage.

I assumed she was proud:  of her stifled and inanimate beauty, of her artificality, of the wealth that gave her the leisure to be as useful as a doll.  I thought she might be sad, and for the same reasons.  I was thinking of all those things, until I saw the small coral blossom, insinuating itself into a smile that dimpled the corners of her mouth.  It was like a whispered secret, a sly revelation – telling me that I needn't have worried.

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