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