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The Unknown, Unheard, speaks...


At night, my mistress sighs and cries. In the morning, she paints her face to mask her tears. The Prince, her husband, loves his country more than her. She speaks of ‘his Hungary’ as if it is a monster that has devoured his brain. She says it makes him mad with hunger for something he cannot have.

‘What does Madame mean?’ I ask one day. She pats my head.

‘My little stupid!’ she exclaims. ‘You will not understand. How can anyone believe in such an impossible thing as ‘Liberty’ or ‘Freedom’?’

I keep quiet. When my mistress is upset, she punishes me.

‘No food for two days,’ she will whisper while a smile slithers through her teeth and lips. Her voice is so soft that I am the only one in her company who will hear. I must always stand close for my ebony skin to display her marble white.

My mistress often recounts her plight. Married at fifteen to her young prince, they were happy for six years. Her Prince Rácóczi was favoured by his godfather the Emperor of Austria; blessed with castles and plentiful land. My mistress bore him two fine sons.

‘Was that not enough?’ she laments. The Emperor granted his godson’s every wish, except one: that Hungary should be free from the Empire and be its own master.

‘That shall never be!’ declared the Emperor.

But Prince Rácóczi would not heed and led his peasants in revolt. (I must hide the secret cheer inside me, while a little tear slides down my mistress’s cheek whenever she recalls this.) The Emperor’s men captured her young prince, imprisoned him for his treason and announced that he must die. That would have been his fate except for my plucky young mistress. Still pregnant with their second son, she bribed the prison commander to let her husband flee!

The Emperor’s patience was strained, yet he took my abandoned mistress with her young ones under his wing. He even promised to forgive his rebel godson, if he would only lay aside this ‘nonsense of independence’. The prince refused. Nothing would stop him seeking freedom for his country, his Hungary. Liberty was his greatest love.

My mistress tells how she shed many tears. Then, one night, she slipped away to France to join her husband, leaving her ‘dear boys’ behind. Surely his love would be aroused by her sacrifice? But no. To pursue his country’s struggle, he abandoned her again, this time in Paris. That is when my mistress bought me and my own sad tale begins...

This morning, while we prepare for Monsieur de Largillière to make his painting, I ask why my mistress did not return home to her sons.

‘Madame, do they not miss you greatly?’

My lady’s breast turns pale as milk.

‘How dare you presume to know what my sons feel!’ Her cheeks burst into little flames.

But Madame, I want to say, I know the pain of separation for I was torn from my mother, father, family, village, home. Every hour of every day, my thoughts leap to them across the ocean of giant waves...

My mistress glares. ‘I have told you my piteous story so that you can reflect it in your eyes when you gaze on me. Do as Monsieur de Largillière says and look sorrowful. ’

My mistress flicks her peacock fan. Its feathers are not for flying. Madame’s arm lies heavy on my shoulder .

‘This painting must be perfect, Monsieur! When my husband views it, it must hasten his return!’

‘He will be entranced, Madame, I am sure!’ Monsieur signals me to twist my face up towards my mistress. He wishes the light to glint on my lady’s pearl, hanging from my right ear.

The iron band around my neck cuts my throat. I stare beyond my mistress. Something very tall is standing there, in the shadows. Monsieur and Madame do not know that it is there, but I see it. Inside my head I think about what Madame calls ‘impossible’. I think about Liberty.

© Beverley Naidoo 2010
Image of quote from Beverley's storyBeverley's story
Image of students.Click here for Student Responses.
Detail of ‘Princess Rákóczi’ by Nicolas de Largillierre, probably 1720.Click here for About the Painting.
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