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A Desperate and Despicable Dwarf: Section Twelve

       Last updated: Tuesday, April 27, 2004 00:01 EDT



    Early the next morning, I arrived at the Baron de Butin's townhouse. Geoffrey showed me in to see the agent once again. I entered the room followed by the portrait, carried by two of the ever present giant footmen.

    The agent looked up, frowning. "Back already?"

    "Indeed, Sir. My commission is complete." With a flourish, I undraped the canvas. Behind me, I heard Geoffrey sputter and gasp. But Grimes seemed utterly unmoved.

    "I see. Put it over there," he ordered the footmen, pointing to the side. Then, to me: "Any supplies or materials not entirely consumed belong to the estate and must be returned."

    I plopped a greasy sack on his desk containing divers pigments, oils, paints, varnishes, fixatives, thinners, brushes and a dirty palate. He nodded and returned to his papers. I turned to go, feeling somewhat deflated by his lack of response. But, just as I reached the door he spoke again, in a voice filled with hissing menace.

    "You realize that you have perpetrated an incredible outrage against the revered memory of the Baron?"

    I turned and stared down at the grey wretch. "To the contrary. In fact, I have caught the Baron's last moment for posterity. And done so perfectly, I might add—I have it on the best authority. I should think the estate would be delighted."

    "We shall see, we shall see," he snarled. "Be assured this matter will be subjected to intense legal scrutiny. Be sure of it, sirra!" His fury finally broke, to my delight. The lawyer was fairly quivering in his chair. "You haven't heard the end of this! No, you certainly haven't! You'll be sued! Disgraced! Disbarred!"

    "There's no bar for artists," I replied, and left the room.

    In the event, the lawyer proved quite wrong. I was neither sued, nor disgraced, nor disbarred. Quite the contrary. Word spread, and soon the Baron's estate was bombarded with bids for the painting—even one from the Queen. The Baron, it seemed, had made many enemies in the course of his life. At first, the estate's lawyers resisted the temptation, but, being lawyers, not for long. The portrait finally wound up the proud possession of no less a personage than the Duke de Croûte. It was unveiled at a grand soiree attended by well nigh the entirety of New Sfinctr's haut monde. I was present at the occasion myself. Indeed, I was an honored guest. When the cloth was removed from the portrait, the entire crowd gasped. Some with horror, some with shock, some with glee.

    Gazing upon it, now with time for reflection, I decided the portrait was really quite good. I had captured the bulging eyeballs, the blowfish cheeks, the purple veins popping out on the forehead—most of all, the hopeless sense of doom which had, at that moment, no doubt suffused every cranny of the Baron's miserable soul.

    Of Greyboar, naught was visible but the thumbs. Of Ignace, nothing at all—save, oddly enough, the title. For it had been he, recovered from his convulsions, who had suggested the title as I left the chamber in The Trough:

    The Great Hunter. Sans Beaters. Sans Bearers. Sans Guides. Sans Tout But the Beast.



    In the weeks which followed, invitations and commissions began to come my way. My time was spent less and less as a sword master, more and more as an artist. But Hrundig graciously allowed me to retain the loft/studio, which suited both my needs and my growing trade.

    It was a busy time. The winter proved to be mild by the standards of northern Grotum—or so, at least, I was told by one and all. It did not seem mild to me! Though Ozar lies on a more northerly latitude than Grotum, it is washed on all sides by the warmth of the sea. I was not accustomed to the bitter winds which often blew in from the heart of the sub-continent. But New Sfinctr took the thing in stride—indeed, Sfinctrian high society seemed to positively wallow in revelry.

    I had an invitation nearly every night. I was wining and dining with the wealthy and powerful. The wine and food were excellent. The company was not. With no exceptions that I encountered, the bourgeois gentility of New Sfinctr were a lot of crass asses. The aristocracy, beneath a thing veneer, was worse. However, many lucrative commissions resulted from these affairs.

    It seemed that I had gained a reputation as a dashing rogue as well as a good artist, and the worthies of the city found a certain titillation in employing my services as an artist. On two occasions, these sentiments led to affairs with ladies of the court. Pleasant affairs, but very brief. They were both married, and I found, for my part, that my thoughts were always drawn back to Gwendolyn. I began to despair of ever ridding my heart of that obsession.

    On another (even briefer) occasion, the ennui of the nobility forced me into a duel with a particularly obnoxious specimen of the breed. Some minor Count, whose name escapes me. Apparently the wretch convinced himself that I was taking liberties with his fiancee—a pecadillo of which, in point of fact, I was quite innocent, as the woman in question, though comely, was a thoroughly unpleasant creature. He also convinced himself of the even more preposterous notion that my reputation as a swordsman was overblown, an error which I speedily corrected at the appointed time. I did not slaughter the man, nor even maim him, which, though gratifying, would have been socially and professionally incautious. Instead, following Hrundig's advice, I neatly perforated his hip. A protracted and painful wound, but not deadly; nor one which would leave the oaf with a debonair cheek scar.

    In truth, within three months time I found that I was becoming tired of the whole business. My purse was full, to be sure. But I soon found the prospect of painting yet another portrait of a vapid noblewoman or a corpulent merchant dreary in the extreme. The company of such people I could abide, with difficulty. What I could not abide was the narrow constraints on my art.



    The only bright spot was my growing friendship with Hrundig and the Frissault family, especially Madame Frissault. Every Sunday I accompanied the swordmaster to the Frissault villa, a visit which soon became the highlight of my week. In addition to the companionship, I enjoyed the challenge to my art. Madame Frissault commissioned numerous paintings and sculptures from me. For these, I charged her only the cost of materials. She protested, but I held firm. I considered the matter a fair trade, inasmuch as she was the most astute student of art I had ever encountered, and I learned much under her pleasant but stern criticism.

    In the first few weeks of these visits, Hrundig was a bit stiff. He was concerned, I think, on the matter of Madame Frissault's secret. On our fourth visit, he even attempted, clumsily, to bring the subject forward for discussion amongst the three of us, at a time when the girls were occupied. But Madame Frissault ended the discussion before it began, with the simple statement that she had full confidence in my soul as well as my discretion.

    I saw the Roach again, twice, at the Frissault villa. Tom Frissault had apparently thrown in his lot completely with the revolutionary movement, and was much in the Roach's company. This did not seem to upset Madame Frissault, beyond the natural concern of a mother for a child who was placing himself in harm's way. Her religion, if Joesy can be called such (she herself disliked the term, and claimed her faith was "scientific antiquarianism") was not intolerant of other creeds. Indeed, she seemed rather fond of revolutionaries, although, judging from her few occasional remarks, she viewed them as a frenetic, shallow-minded and impatient lot. As for the danger involved in Tom's activity, she was largely philosophical. Her own creed, after all, was viewed by established society as a vile and dangerous heresy, and she was no stranger to peril. Her husband, Tom's father, had already paid with his life.

    On the two occasions when I encountered him at the villa, my conversations with The Roach were brief. Toward the conclusion of our second talk, I inquired hesitantly as to Gwendolyn's well-being. She was well, so far as he knew. But he told me that he had had no direct contact with her for some time, due to his pre-occupation with affairs in New Sfincter. My heart reacted to this news with a relief so profound as to shock me. Relief, that she was well; relief, that he had not seen her.

    On that day's ride back from the villa, I was silent, wallowing in black self-fury. What an idiot I was! Absurb, to remain obsessed with a woman from whom I had parted. Absurd, too, to view The Roach as a rival for her—the more so as, since the day I first met him, I retained a deep respect and admiration for the man.



    It was shortly thereafter that my obligation to Greyboar, which, truth to tell, I had all but forgotten, was called due.

    I was working away in the main room of my studio, putting the final touches on an ink drawing of Giaccomo Sanctissimo, Cardinal Ignomini. The Cardinal had commissioned the work a few days before, but, as he had not had time to pose for more than a few minutes, I had only made a rough sketch. Though it was a small piece, I had put my best effort into the work. The Church is the wealthiest of all patrons of the arts, and I hoped to parlay my sketch of the Cardinal into far more lucrative commissions. More even than the lucre, I was attracted by the artistic prospect. The Church, by and large, is a more artistically inclined institution than the aristocracy.

    Suddenly, I felt a presence in the room.

    When I turned, I found myself looking up at the massive form of Greyboar. He was but three feet behind me. A moment later, Ignace entered the room.

    I was quite startled, actually. It must have showed on my face, for Ignace grinned.

    "Soft-footed, isn't he? You wouldn't think such a huge lump could move like a cat, but he does. Quite an asset in our line of work, actually."

    Three more people, all women, filed into the room. The first two were very small, very young, very pretty, and very lively. They were like concentrated essence of exuberance, and the moment I saw them I wanted to do their portrait.

    The third woman was—odd. Very, very, very odd.

    How to describe her? She was not pretty, exactly—although her figure was extraordinary. Her nose was too long, even by the aquiline standards of the nobility. And her eyes, though a startlingly clear and beautiful blue, were encased behind the most extravagant spectacles I had ever seen.

    Then, too, her quite evident femininity clashed with her sword—and no genteel, lady-like rapier, this, discretely belted to her waist. No, no—by now, under Hrundig's tutelage, I was quite a connoisseur of edged weapons. The blade this woman carried was a full-sized saber, slung in a proper baldric. I had practiced with such weapons, and they were heavy and weary to handle. True, she was a tall woman, and by no means slender, but I should have thought such a blade rather beyond her muscular means.

    But the oddness of the woman, in the final analysis, went far beyond the contradictions in her form and fashion. It took but a few seconds to realize that they were embedded in the innermost core of her being. The oddness was expressed, perhaps more than anywhere else, in the way the woman—moved.

    How did she move? I wondered, as I stared at her. She seemed to be walking about, and yet—somehow she was never quite where she seemed to be. Or, perhaps, it was that she got where she seemed to be going either faster or slower than you thought she was going to get there, depending, it seemed, on whether you were looking or not. It was utterly bizarre!

    Ignaced laughed. "Yeah, that's her. Your model. Good luck, Benny—you're going to need it."

    I shook my head, flushing slightly. I realized that I had been staring at the woman for some time.

    I looked back at Greyboar. The expression on his face was a combination of pride and bemusement.

    "Yeah, she's the lady I told you about. Can you do her portrait? Oh, her name's Schrödinger's Cat."

    What a peculiar name, I thought. But I said nothing.

    "You owe me a guilder," said Greyboar. He extended his huge hand toward Ignace. Ignace dug into his pocket and withdrew a coin.

    "We had a bet," explained Greyboar. "Ignace was sure you'd ask who Schrodinger is, like everybody else does. But I knew you were too refined and gentlemanly, unlike the slobs Ignace hangs out with in The Trough."

    "Of course he is!" exclaimed one of the two young women. "He's an artist—a real one!" She pointed to one of the portraits hanging on the wall. "Just look at this! It's beautiful."

    She turned and bestowed a gleaming smile upon me. "I'm Jenny, by the way. And this"—here she indicated the other young woman—"is Angela. Ignace should have introduced us, but he's not refined and gentlemanly."

    Ignaced flushed.

    Jenny now turned toward Schrödinger's Cat, who was standing at the far wall, examining one of my paintings. It was a portrait of Lady Belfram, a woman whose extravagant taste in fashion was only exceeded by the rigid hauteur of her pose.

    "Hey, Cat!" she hollered. "Come over here and meet the fellow who's going to paint your portrait."

    The "Cat," as I took her nickname to be, turned her head and stared at me solemnly. Through the thick lenses, her eyes seemed huge.

    "Not like this, I hope," she stated forcefully, indicating the portrait before which she was standing. She had a most striking voice, clear and ringing like a bell.

    I laughed. "I should think not! The portraits you see hanging on the walls are the results of commissions which went unpaid. The Sfinctrian nobility, I am afraid, has a lackadaisical attitude toward paying their debts. I simply keep them here as advertisement."

    I examined her carefully for a moment, then turned to Greyboar.

    "It is your decision, of course, but I do not actually think that a formal portrait would do justice to—uh, Cat."

    "'The' Cat," Greyboar corrected me mildly. He rubbed his chin. "Well—you're the professional." He glanced at the Cat, who was off again, wandering about. "I'll admit it would be difficult to get her to sit still for a formal pose."

    I shook my head. "And it wouldn't—how shall I say it? It wouldn't be her. It would be—" I waved at the various ladies portrayed on the walls.

    Greyboar looked at them. "Yeah, I see what you mean. They all look like they're constipated or something."

    He shrugged. "All right. Do whatever you think's best."

    The next hour I spent sketching the Cat in charcoal. What I produced was not a single sketch, but a series—what you might call a study in motion. It was a most challenging task, and one which I soon fell into completely. Within minutes I was oblivious to anything else. During that time, I was vaguely aware that Greyboar, Ignace, and the two girls were wandering about the studio, examining various products of my art lying about. But I was so absorbed in my work that I thought nothing of it.

    It was only much later, when I finally finished the series of sketches to my satisfaction, that I became aware, once again, of my surroundings. At which point I noticed that I was the object of a strange set of gazes.

    Hrundig had made an appearance, and he was looking at me with an odd mixture of amusement, embarassment, and apprehension. Ignace was—there is no other word for it—ogling me. His pale, freckled complexion was almost purple. Jenny and Angela were staring at me wide-eyed, but their glances constantly flickered toward Greyboar, and when they did so, their faces seemed fearful.

    Greyboar himself was the only one not standing. He was sitting upright in a chair, gazing at me. He bore no expression whatsoever, which made his already fearsome visage resemble a particularly hard and obdurate stone.

    I raised my eyebrow quizzically.

    "Is something the matter?" I asked. I looked down at the sketches on my pad. "You don't care for them? I think they're quite excellent—and I'm usually my own harshest critic."

    Ignace cleared his throat. "It's not that. It's those other—"

    "You should perhaps have kept the door to your private rooms closed," commented Hrundig mildly.

    "We shouldn't have gone into that room in the first place!" exclaimed Jenny.

    "That's right!" cried Angela. "The gentleman has as much right to privacy as anybody!"

    "There's an interesting set of portraits in the other room," rumbled Greyboar.



    Understanding came to me at once. I gazed back at Greyboar silently. I took some pride in maintaining, I believe, an expression which was every bit as stone-faced as his.

    "Hey, big guy," said Ignace, "I'm sure his intentions were quite honorable. It doesn't mean anything, you know—women are always posing stark nak-- uh, nude for artists. It's not the same thing as—you know. Different rules."

    "That's right!" agreed Angela. Jenny nodded her head vigorously.

    I arose, gently placed my tablet of sketches on my chair, and walked over to the door to my private chambers. I was about to close it, when a thought came to me.

    "Cat," I said. The woman, who was at that moment scrutinizing another portrait on a wall, glanced over at me.

    "I believe you are the only person here who has not yet examined the paintings in my private chambers. You might want to take a look at them. They're far better than the ones out here." I motioned, politely inviting her in.

    Her curiosity aroused, the Cat drifted past me into my chambers. I turned back to Greyboar.

    "The woman in those paintings," I said harshly, "was not a model. Nor did she ever pose for me. She was my lover, once, and I did those paintings from memory."

    Ignace sighed softly, and covered his face with a hand. "Oh, boy," I heard him mutter. "It's like the wise man says: 'why waste a good excuse on a dummy?'"

    Hrundig's face stiffened. He glanced at Greyboar quickly. His hand drew back, closed on the the hilt of his sword.

    Suddenly, Jenny charged forward and planted herself before the strangler.

    "You behave yourself, Greyboar!" she admonished. "We're having a pleasant afternoon and I won't stand for anything spoiling it!"

    "That's right!" cried Angela. A moment later, she was standing next to Jenny, wagging her finger in Greyboar's face. "We won't stand for any of your roughneck ways!"

    I could not help erupting with laughter. The two girls looked at me.

    "What's so funny?" they demanded, as one.

    "You are," I replied. "You look like two mice lecturing a bear on table manners." I shook my head admiringly.

    "I'd like to know why," grumbled Greyboar, "everybody seems convinced that I'm about to turn this place into a slaughterhouse."

    "There's a bit of a body count in your past," commented Hrundig.

    "That's business," replied the strangler. A glance at Hrundig's hand, followed by an irritated shrug. "Oh, stop clutching that stupid sword, Hrundig. There's no need for it, and it wouldn't do you any good if there were."

    "Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not," replied Hrundig.

    Greyboar looked up at Angela and Jenny—or, I should say, looked straight at them, for even seated his eyes were on a level with theirs. Suddenly, he grinned.

    "Benvenuti's right. You do look like two mice lecturing on protocol."

    The girls flushed.

    Greyboar took a deep breath and gazed up at the ceiling.

    "It was quite obvious that Gwendolyn never posed for those paintings, Ignace," he commented, "so you could have saved us that ridiculous suggestion."

    "Worth a try," muttered the little agent.

    Still staring at the ceiling, Greyboar sighed. "Ignace, not everyone in this world is as hot-tempered, choleric and pugnacious as you. Nor, Jenny and Angela, am I quite the homicidal maniac you seem to think I am. But, even if I were, I still wouldn't have done anything about those paintings, for the good and simple reason that I am not suicidal."

    His gaze dropped; he glanced toward my private chambers.

    "Only one person in the world scares me to death," he mused, "and that's my sister." He pursed his lips. "I imagine she'd take it badly, if I was to go out and do something like choke her former boyfriend on the grounds that he had sullied the family name." He grimaced. "Real badly."

    He looked at me now, and for some long moment we stared at each other.

    Suddenly, the Cat came back into the room. Unlike her previous, seemingly aimless, wandering, she came directly to my chair. I was almost able to follow her movements exactly.

    "Is that it?" she asked, pointing at the tablet.

    When I nodded, she picked up the sketches and scrutinized them. Then she peered at me intently. Through the thick lenses, her eyes were like mountain pools.

    "You're good," she announced. She glanced back down at the sketches. "Is that really what I look like?" Then, not waiting for an answer: "It's exactly what I feel like."

    She peered at Greyboar. "You should see the portraits he has in the other room. They're wonderful. They really are. Not at all like the crap on the walls out here. The funny thing is, the woman in the paintings looks kind of like you, except she doesn't look like a gorilla."

    "My sister, Gwendolyn," rumbled the strangler.

    "Is that so?" The Cat didn't seem surprised, but then, it was my impression that almost nothing in the world would ever surprise the Cat. It was as if, for her, the entire universe never made much sense in the first place, so why be startled by some minute portion of the thing?

    Greyboar rose. "Well, I believe our business here is done, and the Cat seems very pleased with the results." He bowed politely to me. "I thank you, Benvenuti." Then, after a brief hesitation: "Someday, if you'd like, come visit me at The Trough. I—would like to hear about Gwendolyn."

    "I will do so, then," I replied.

    Greyboar turned and left, after ushering the Cat through the door. The woman seemed oblivious to anything except the sketches in her hand. Ignace, Jenny and Angela made to follow.

    "One moment, please," I said. When the girls turned to me, I continued: "The moment I saw the two of you, I wanted to do your portrait. Now, after witnessing your gallant defense of me, I must insist. At no cost to yourselves, of course."

    Jenny beamed. "Oh, that'd be great!" exclaimed Angela.

    Ignace frowned ferociously. He peered at me as if I were a vampire. I swear, for a moment I expected him to draw forth garlic and holy symbols.

    "I don't know about this!" he growled. "Two innocent young girls—an artist—who knows what might—"

    "Oh, shut up!" snapped Jenny.

    "Yeah, what's your problem?" added Angela.

    Ignace flushed. "Well, you know, he'd probably want you to pose, you know, with your clothes off."

    "And so what if he does?" demanded Angela.

    "You always like us to pose with our clothes off," added Jenny.

    Ignace spluttered. I smiled and said, "Actually, I wasn't thinking of a nude portrait. In fact, I wasn't thinking of any sort of formal poses. I would just like to try and capture your spirit, if I could. The two of you are like liquid sunshine."

    "Oh, how sweet!" exclaimed Jenny, blushing. Angela smiled, like a cherub, and whispered to Ignace: "You never say things like that to us."

    Ignace was now beet red.

    "Let's be off!" he cried, and hustled the girls out the door. He glared at me over his shoulder.

    I shrugged. "I assure you, sirra, my intentions are quite honorable."

    "Yeah, yeah," I heard him mutter. "Intentions be damned. Anybody who'd seduce Gwendolyn is out of his mind in the first place, so who knows what he'd do?"



    After they were gone, Hrundig puffed out his cheeks and heaved a great sigh.

    "Oh, my. I don't mind telling you, Benvenuti, that I just lost ten years off my life."

    "Greyboar?" I asked, rather perplexed. "In all honesty, he strikes me as an utterly phlegmatic sort of man."

    Hrundig snorted. "He can afford to be." He gazed at me intently. "Do you have any idea how utterly dangerous that man is?"

    "Yes," I responded, harshly. "I knew his sister. And if ever there was a human being like steel, it was she."

    Hrundig departed, leaving me to my gloom. I occupied myself with completing the portrait of Cardinal Sanctissimo. And not a moment too soon, as it happened, for it was but a few minutes later that Hrundig returned, saying that representatives of Cardinal Sanctissimo had arrived. He ushered the fellows in.

    Three priests they were, all long of face, sallow of complexion, and dour of mien. The ascetic and soulful expressions on their faces clashed, or so it seemed to me, with the rich material and fine adornment of their clerical raiment. Nor, to my artist's eye, did the profusion of jewelry draped upon them harmonize quite properly with their bent-back, world-weary posture, the which positively shouted to the world that here stood three men weighted down with their deep and profound cognizance of the ancient secrets and mysteries.

    "The Cardinal sends his regrets," said one of them, "but he is unable to come in person to obtain his portrait." His voice was solemn.

    "Pressing and urgent affairs of the Church," added another. His voice was mournful.

    "Very pressing. Very urgent," qualified the third. His voice seemed to come from the grave.

    "He bade us hither, with his request that you might be so gracious as to bring the portrait to his villa." Thus spoke again the first priest, in a tone which wonderfully combined repressed indignation at being sent as a messenger to a miserable artist, with the haughty certainty that I would accede to the Cardinal's wishes.

    "His gracious request," added the second, in a tone which wonderfully combined barely-veiled derision at the waste of graciousness upon a miserable artist, with the serene foreknowledge that I would do as requested.

    "His Grace's request," qualified the third. I was delighted. In his tone, teleology and arrogance were positively welded into an inseparable whole.

    But I remained grave and polite. "Most certainly," I said. It was but a moment's work to gather up the Cardinal's portrait and wrap it in cloth. The priests marched out to the street. I followed, with Hrundig alongside. At the doorway I stopped, somewhat amazed. On the street before us, the priests even now climbing within, awaited the most elegant, luxuriously-upholstered and well-crafted coach I had yet seen in Grotum.

    "You'll have a nice ride," chuckled Hrundig.

    The faces of the three priests stared at me from the coach windows, wonderfully combining impatience with contempt.

    "So far as my arse is concerned, true," I muttered. "But the conversation promises to be dreary."

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