I was grinding the paint with the mortar and pestle, showing the apprentice for the tenth time how it should be done. The boy should know by now, having been around paint all his life. And the master—also his father—should be teaching him instead of me. But I’m just the journeyman. What does my time and patience matter?
That was the morning the merchant Hofer came striding into the master’s studio, all in furs despite the warm weather.
“I have an order to place with you,” he said with some pride. “My daughter’s portrait.”
The master frowned at that. You don’t order a portrait as you would order a barrel of nails. Hofer’s business had made him rich in the last few years. He’d learned very early how to show what his money could buy—the furs, for instance—but he was not so wise in other ways.
The master took Hofer by the arm and led him to the back of the room. I began showing the apprentice (again) how to add oil to the pigments. It was a task I loved, so it was easy for me to concentrate. When I was a child, in my own father’s studio, I’d get to work mixing the paints well before the apprentices arrived. I did everything the apprentices did, and did it better, my father would tell me.
Suddenly Hofer frowned and backed off, looking as if he would leave, then turned and spoke again. I saw the master shake his head.
I guessed that the price was too high for Hofer’s liking. Then the master nodded in my direction.
“Johann will do a good job for you for half my price,” he said. “He’ll come to your house tomorrow. Is that agreeable?”
Hofer began to say something, but the master held his hand up to stop him. He looked at me.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Tomorrow morning.”
“Good,” he said. The master took Hofer by the arm again and steered him to the front of the studio. “And if you need to contact Johann, go to his rooms above the cobbler’s shop.”
He opened the door. “Don’t come here again.”
Serving as journeyman for this particular portrait master didn’t amount to much money at all, but the whole point of being a journeyman is the journey. I was supposed to travel around working here and there at this point in my career. At some point, I’d submit a painting—a masterpiece—to the guild. If it was accepted, I would be a master and could set up my own studio. For now, this would do. The best part was the arrangement that I would have my own lodgings. Rooms of my own meant far more to me than money or connections. The privacy was worth it. It saved me worry. It might also save my life.
The Hofer work was welcome, though. His house—impressive and large, compared to those around it—was nearby, so I’d have not too far to walk each day. And although the pay would not be as much as the master would charge, it would still be significant for the likes of me.
And so I headed down the stairs early in the morning with my easel and the plank of silver fir the master gave me under my art and my brushes and paints in a satchel. The cobbler who let me my rooms met me glowering before the door to the street.
“Where are you off to?” he wanted to know. Perhaps he was thinking I was running out on the rent.
“I’m going to paint Hofer’s daughter,” I said.
“Ah, well, that’s good.” He stepped aside to let me pass.
Despite the early hour, the streets were already busy. People were off to the fields or to the market or opening their shops. The young girl sweeping the front doorstep stopped and gave me a nod, as she always does whenever she sees me. This town wasn’t so bad, I thought. But maybe one day I’d live in an important town. My father had visited Strasbourg the year before he died and told me all about it—the cathedral with bells tolling and the beautiful streets and the river. Plenty of people wanting their portraits painted, too. Maybe I’d get to Strasbourg one day. That was my dream.
When I got to Hofer’s house, I went to the back door right away, without being told. I was a tradesman to these people, unworthy of the front door. I even scraped my boots before I knocked. A red-faced housekeeper answered the door, and when I told her who I was and why I was there she turned and shouted to the maid to tell the master I’d arrived.
She let me in, although she didn’t seem to want to, and told me to go up the stair and wait in the first room on the left for Hofer. She frowned at me as I walked towards the stair, as if I might drip some paint on her freshly washed floor on the way.
I found the room, which was empty except for a richly embroidered chair and a small oaken table. The chair, I guessed, was for the young lady of the Hofer family whose portrait I would be painting and the table for my brushes and paints. At least I hoped so, because the room had some decent light, which always made things easier.
I placed my satchel on the table and my easel against it. Then I crossed the room to look at the window, fitted with little panes of glass, with an iron latch. Old Hofer really knew how to spend his money.
“Don’t open the window, you idiot! You’ll let flies in!”
It was a servant in the doorway. I smiled to show I’d do no harm.
“Expensive, those panes of glass,” I said.
The servant shrugged. “They’ll take those windows with them if they move. So be careful.” And with that he left.
Hofer came striding in. I half expected him to be sporting the furs, but this morning he was entirely clothed in silks. His hose were two different very bright colors. It was a fashion I’d seen before on very young men of wealth, but it looked rather strange on Hofer.
I bowed to him politely.
“Well, young man,” he began, rather more loudly than necessary. “You’ll have the honor of painting my daughter’s portrait.” He beamed at that. “She’s of an age to be married, and I want all to see her beauty. To attract the best suitors, you see.” He nodded at me as if we were in the same business, each of us intent on marrying off a daughter well.
His familiarity made me bold. I asked, “Why don’t you just have a celebration for her, some dancing and a feast?”
“Oh, no, that won’t do. Any cottager could do that. I’m a man of position now,” he drew himself up as if he were posing for a portrait himself. “I must keep up appearances.”
On the cheap, of course, I added to myself.
Because I’m a journeyman, and truthfully not even that. Although I did a fair job of forging my father’s signature on the papers I needed. That must certainly count for something.
The young lady entered the room with her maid and took the seat without speaking or even looking at me. She was in her finery, a dark brown flowing wool gown, a small lace cap covering her hair. I bid her good morning. She said nothing.
She was sitting well in the chair, upright and confident without looking as if she’d tire of the position. But some element was missing.
“Will you look over to the left, miss?” I asked her. I was looking for something—anything—of interest in her pale, expressionless face.
“Shall you hold some flowers, miss? Anything you choose. There should be a good selection on such a warm May day.” Everyone is cheered by flowers, I thought. Maybe forget-me-nots would coax a smile—or anything—in that face.
“Oh, no,” she informed me. “Flowers make my eyes water and my nose itch. It’s impossible. I’d look a wreck. And everyone knows about how I can’t abide flowers. I’ll be laughed at.”
Her maid nodded at me. It’s true, she seemed to say.
“You could hold something else, then. Perhaps a cross?”
She frowned at that. “I’m not going to be a nun.”
She scoffed. “I’m not a scholar either, boy.”
I ignored the insult. “Have you a pet, perhaps?” I liked to paint animals. If she had a cat to hold, that would liven the image and even might brighten her expression a bit.
She shook her head and sniffed. “Animals are all filthy.”
“Perhaps that lovely new hand mirror, miss?” her maid suggested. It was brave of her, I had to admit. And I was grateful, because that idea met with approval, probably because a mirror was such an expensive, rare item to display.
She sent the maid at once to fetch it, and when she returned Hofer was with her.
“You must be careful not to break it,” he warned me. “I’ll take the cost of it out of your fee, and if I do, and there’ll be precious little left for you.”
I bowed to show that I understand. He was a mean bastard. But the mirror worked well for the portrait. With the reflective side hidden, resting upon her bodice, the shape and the pale gold color of the back added some interest against the dark brown dress, and I could show her long, slender fingers clasping the handle.
By the time we’d arranged it all, the light was gone, so we’d have to start the next morning. But at least we had everything settled so I could get right to work.
When I arrived the next day—with the same sour welcome from the housekeeper—I found not one but two maids attending to the daughter, who was already seated in her place, directing the arrangement of her new linen headgear. The simple lace cap wouldn’t do, I suppose. This contraption rose like a sail above her head and folded over her shoulder and across her breast. It was quite impressive, I had to admit. And it would add some interest around her face, which was sorely needed.
The headgear established our routine for beginning each day. The daughter, holding the mirror, and the two maids carrying the linen between them would arrive and the dance would commence. Each maid would stand on either side to unravel and arrange the linen while the daughter observed their progress in the mirror, calling out directions and scolding them for mistakes. It took them quite some time, but I could spend it getting my paints and brushes ready.
One morning, the headgear finally in place, the daughter was admiring herself in the mirror when she gave a sudden cry. A stain! There was a stain on the linen!
“Right there!” she moaned, pointing to what I thought of as the sail. The maids clucked and shook their heads in sympathy. The laundress was to blame, they agreed. That was to be their story to keep themselves out of trouble.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, hoping to get on with the work. “I won’t paint the stain. You can hardly see it, anyway.”
The daughter shot me a look of disgust. “Impossible!” She rose with great dignity. On her way out she snapped at me “You will continue tomorrow, boy!”
What a world women live in, I thought as I cleaned my brushes. The tyranny of tidiness. I remembered my aunt complaining about the paint on my clothes when I was a child, shortly after my mother died. She’d have preferred me not to have anything to do with my father’s studio. I was glad I no longer had to worry about such things.
It was still early in the afternoon, so I went by the master’s studio to see if I could be of any use. There was nothing to do just then, but he said it was good that I’m come, because there was something he needed to tell me.
We sat down with some beer at the table, and he explained that his wife’s cousin would be coming to his studio next month. The cousin was a journeyman, too, and the family had decided—well, you know, he shrugged. He couldn’t afford two journeymen. There was not enough work for two, anyway.
So I’d be out of a job in less than a month. But he tried to cheer me up. “Your work is good,” he said. “You could have a masterpiece soon enough, beardless youth though you are.” He looked closer at me. “Just how old are you?”
I forced myself to smile. It really was time to go.
Nothing in the daughter’s face drew my interest, so I invented little endearing features. I turned up the corners of her very dull mouth very slightly. I rendered her quite unremarkable eyelashes in exquisite detail.
So occupied, late one afternoon, I had forgotten the daughter herself—and everything else—when suddenly I saw her waving a hand before her face. Her maid was dabbing her forehead with a handkerchief. Only then did I realized that the room had become uncomfortably warm.
“I’ll open a window, shall I?” I put down my brush.
“No!” she shrieked. “We’ll have those filthy flies all around! Keep the windows shut!”
And so we sweated quietly, she in her best dark woolen dress and I in my light shirt and breeches. I was in much the better position. I smiled at the thought as I mixed the colors. I didn’t miss those clothes at all.
I was putting the final touches on the portrait at last—just some details I wanted to work at, nothing that would require the subject—and I thought to ask if the daughter wanted to see it.
“I’m just finishing up the background here,” I told her. “If you’d care to—”
“Oh, good,” she said. “What a bore this was.” She stood and swept out of the room, dropping the mirror carelessly among my paints as she left.
When I was done, I went looking for Hofer to tell him I’d finished and to invite him to look at the portrait. He was dining, the housekeeper told me.
“The portrait? No. Not needed,” he said without looking up at me. He reached for the carafe of wine and poured himself a glass. “I’ve decided to host a great dance and feast. That will be much better.”
“But my payment?”
Now he looked up at me. “No. I told you.” He bit off a chunk of the bread he clutched in his hand. “I’ve canceled the order.”
“But it’s completed. I’ve painted the portrait.”
He waved the bread at me. “You can have it, then. I don’t want it.”
And so I took the portrait home to my small room. I took a good look at it. It was mine now. Hofer didn’t want it. No one else would want it. Even I didn’t want it. But if it was mine, I thought, I wanted flowers in her hand. That first day, I’d been thinking of forget-me-nots for the color and the delicate form. I had nothing else to do, so I painted over the mirror and added the flowers.
When I was done, I lettered “A Woman of the Hofer Family” in the top left corner and put down my brush. There she was, not as she wished to be seen, but as I wanted to paint her. Just then I heard buzzing about my cup of wine. It gave me an idea, and I picked up my brush again.
A few days later, I was awakened by a pounding at my door. It was the servant from the Hofer house with a message.
“He’s changed his mind. He wants the portrait. I’m to take it now, wrapped in this—” It was a length of dark, rough linen. “They’re going to uncover it at the ball.” The servant rolled his eyes at that.
He stared at me for a moment, then pulled a small bag of coins from beneath his cloak.
“I almost forgot,” he mumbled. “Oh, and he says it’s only half the fee you agreed on, because you didn’t spend much time painting and you’re only a—what did he say? ‘Only a journeyman.’ That’s it.” He shrugged.
I wrapped the painting and gave it to him. Then I quickly gathered my belongings, gave the cobbler my last rent payment, and headed out of town.
The plan was to unveil the portrait at midnight when everyone was dizzy with wine and dancing.
Hofer called for attention. Then he drew the linen off and revealed the painting.
The daughter was the first to speak.
“What are those flowers? I wasn’t holding any flowers!”
The other girls whispered and snickered.
Then Hofer, with a frown, pulled a handkerchief out and flicked it at the painting.
“I told you to keep this carefully,” he snapped at the servant.
“Something’s on the painting,” whispered one of the guests. There was more snickering.
Hofer flicked the handkerchief again and again, then cursed aloud. When the guests saw what he’d tried to brush away, they gasped. The daughter fainted.
For there, on the immaculate linen headdress, was a fly resting as comfortably as if on a piece of rotten fruit.
When I left, I didn’t take my easel, brushes, and paints. Better to buy them when I arrive rather than lugging them all the way to Strasbourg. I wasn’t worried about money at all. I was certain to get a good sum for the mirror there.
Regina Higgins is a writer living in Lexington, Kentucky, with her family. Her stories have appeared in All Worlds Wayfarer, Every Day Fiction, Luna Station Quarterly, Rainbow Rumpus, and Wyldblood Magazine. She is currently writing a novel.
© 2022, Regina Higgins