Memling_Tryptich_of_Earthly_Vanity

Jacqueline is telling it…

I behold an old man in green tunic and a wide brimmed hat. He seems quite enchanted by my beauty and his tongue flicks between his lips:

‘Forgive me my dear, but I could not help notice you from the other side of the street. You look so forlorn and alone. Have you lost your companion?’

‘I have no companion sire – except my brother Joseph.’

‘And where, pray tell, is he?’

‘Why, he is sleeping in his basket.’

The man gasps in horror:

‘Mon Dieu! What a monster!’

‘He’s no monster Monsieur. He was born without limbs.’

‘You carry a heavy burden Mademoiselle.’

‘Not at all Monsieur. I love him as if he were my own child.’

He looks me up and down, his jaw trembling as he surveys my bosom:

‘I have not seen you in these parts before. Pray, where are you from Mademoiselle? You are obviously a lady of breeding. Do I know your parents?’

‘My parents? No, you cannot possibly know them. That is quite absurd.’

‘Perhaps I might. I am very well connected. I have even met the king.’

‘You have?’

‘Indeed. There’s not a noble north of Toulouse that I haven’t entertained at one time or another.’

‘That is well for you Monsieur.’

‘Do I know your family?’

‘Alas, my family is dead.’

‘You are all alone in the world? How sad. Please, allow me to introduce myself, I am Maugis le Ménagier.’

‘Ménagier?’

‘A good man, you might say. Though not of the Cathar kind, I hasten to add. And you are?’

‘Jacqueline de Belloc.’

He removes his hat and bows politely.

‘Might I ask pretty lady, where are you heading?’

‘I’m travelling to Paris.’

‘Paris! Oh my dear, that’s a long way off! Are you sure you mean to go so far all by yourself? I mean, a lady should never travel alone. The roads are full of vagabonds and thieves.’

‘I have yet to meet any.’

‘Then fortune has been kind to you.’

‘Yes Monsieur, I think you’re right: after all, it sent me you: Maugis le Ménagier – a good man if ever there was one.’

His face brightens with a blush.

‘And tell me Jacqueline, is that your horse on the far side of the pond?’

‘Yes Monsieur. I mean to find a farrier. Lucy lost a shoe a league back.’

‘Then you and your brother shall stay the night with me. My maid will attend you both; and my smith will shoe your horse.’

‘Oh I dare not trouble you Monsieur. ’Twould be wrong to intrude upon your household.’

‘Nonsense my dear. I’m happy to oblige. I live just a stone’s throw from here – at the end of the street. Do you see that big white house opposite the church?’

‘Oh ’tis a grand house Monsieur. A very grand house.’

‘The finest in town, they say. Follow me Jacqueline, follow me…’

Court Transcript

JACQUELINE. Do you see where all this is heading? Can you see where the wrong end of the right beginning begins? It begins with a man – an old man of sixty four– whom I met by a stagnant pond in the back-end of France. Had I paid more heed to my second sight, I would have refused him there and then; for as he turned away, I saw his back was covered with an array of sharp knives, all sticking out like the spines of a hedgehog.[i]

I feign to tell the lurid fleuve of how we wed – he being very fond of young girls, especially orphans like me. For the memory of bedding him makes me want to retch, and it shames me to speak of all the wicked things he did. He stank like a pig, had rotten teeth, and a penchant for perversity. Each night he would bridle my mouth and correct me for my faults – of which I had many. Yet I always feigned the fool when he took his pleasure, and fixed my gaze on the candle flame. He broke me in gently at first, until I was quite corrupted by his wickedness.

Nevertheless, he was learned and wealthy, with great experience in worldly affairs. He oft’ entertained visitors of high estate, who stayed late into the night. Their business was a mystery, but he ruled them all with an iron fist.

A maid was employed to help with the management of his house. Her name was Serena – a girl of rare beauty, with dusky skin, hazel eyes and curly black locks. She gave me instruction on every aspect of housekeeping: how to mend clothes, clean dresses, air furs, remove gravy spots, catch fleas and keep spiders out of the bedroom. She insisted that my salvation depended on treating Maugis well, despite his wicked impulses. I was to be loving, humble, obedient and thoughtful for his person and bodily needs. I was to be buxom in bed and at board – even when suffering from melancholy. I was never to utter an angry or ugly word, and to always keep my silence regarding his peculiar tastes.

I learnt to horse it well. My wifely submission extended to washing his feet, combing lice from his hair, picking wax from his ears, and lavishing my attention on all his heroic deeds. And I always remained patient and forgiving when his heart strayed towards other women. In return for my compliance, he employed a tailor to fill my closet with silken gowns, all embroidered with the finest Flemish lace. That made me a very happy girl indeed.

Alas, my happiness was short lived as it was shallow. For I soon discovered that my amenable husband was a tyrant with a cruel streak. Despite my efforts to please him, he took to beating me with his crop. When he found a fly in his soup, he thrashed me so severely, that I couldn’t sit down for a week. Indeed, I’m sure that had he known of my assets, he would have plundered my gold and shut me away forever.

You will be pleased to know that I was careful to hide my treasure in a grain loft: both saddle bags were tucked high amid the eaves, far from prying eyes. Joseph said that my ill-gotten gains would bring us bane. In truth, I half-believed him, for to gaze upon those coins was to remember my old life, with all its dark and slippery windings. That lustrous metal filled me with foreboding, and its saffron sheen seemed to mock my change of state: how could a leaden faun, with hairy shanks and twisted horns, become a girl so golden? ’Twas high magic indeed. The crystal wands, now lost in the depths of preadamite Time, still exerted a strong pull on my flesh; I felt it most keenly at night, when the cries of the dead lay thick on the wind. I had done as Grazide commanded, and she had fulfilled her pact. But the brethren’s fiery deaths had robbed my peace. And worst of all, I was plagued with nagging doubts. Would the powers of my enchantment prevail? The very permanence of my state was now in question; for hairs had appeared on my upper lip. I plucked them each night with pincers. The roots were deep and dark. Each extraction stung like a bee, and no matter how many I plucked, they always returned, thicker than before. Curses! Was this the start of my disintegration?

Only Joseph knew of my transmutation in the pit. As such, I was keen to keep him at a distance. I gave him a lavish room in the west wing, with a nurse to attend his every need. She bathed him, dressed him, and fed him, all according to my wishes. At noon, she wheeled him round the garden in a sack trolley. They fed geese, played cards, and drank perry. He seemed happy enough, but his mind was oft’ clouded by grief, and he remained mute for weeks on end. I met him but once a day for evening prayers – an appointment we kept from the cloister. One night after saying the Paternoster, he turned to me and said:

‘In heaven as it is on Earth? You are a fine woman, sister. Who can deny it? Some might even call you a goddess. But ’tis just an illusion. Deep in your bones you are still a man like me: the base progeny of a Janus seed. Perjurii pœna divina exitium, humana dedecus. [Perdition is the punishment of perjury in heaven, on earth disgrace].[ii] You have fooled le Ménagier well. But for how long? Tell me now, what do you see in a man like that? He calls you his pony girl. Fille poney! He has no higher faculties at all. He thinks himself a good man, but he is only concerned with eating, drinking, fucking, and making money. Even so, I cannot believe such a shrewd man of the world would shut his eyes to your wicked ways. Brother Jean once told me that the bones, blood, and viscera are all related to mental phenomena. If that is true, then what created your siren flesh?’

‘I’ve told you before: ’twas the work of angels.’

‘Fallen angels, methinks. A demonic pact. Did Odo not warn you of the pit? He was a noble soul, superior to any man I ever met – morally, intellectually, and spiritually. I remember when you were the apple of his eye. His theological prodigy. A monk of exceptional talent. But if you had any affinity with him, ’twas sullied long ago. Eh Jacques?’

‘Don’t call me that! How dare you!’

‘What’s the matter? Have I touched a nerve?’

‘I’ve told you before: my name is Jacqueline.’

‘You’ll always be Jack to me.’

‘Jack is dead. In fact, he never existed.’

‘Did he not?’

‘You will call me Jacqueline in future. Is that clear?’

‘I shall call you what I please.’

‘Listen to me, little man! If you don’t do as I say, I’ll lock you in the cupboard and leave you to starve. Is that what you want? Without me you’d be nothing in this world. Nothing.’

‘You’re beginning to sound like father Janus. It matters not if you kill me. I shall not survive long this fleshy condition. My soul has outgrown the dimensions of this body. And you? How long shall that spell be unbroken? ’Tis witchcraft to be sure. Such beauty steels the breath away. Your body came from a supernatural source, by supernatural means. Sometimes I forget ’tis you in there. You cured yourself but can’t cure me. Why not? Is the subtle alchemy of my flesh beyond your magic? Are these atoms of bone so very different? Is my substance not the same as your substance? Are we not eternal? Imperishable? It seems our fate is writ by many strange and unaccountable agencies of Nature. Look at me when I’m speaking! I want to touch; to feel; to love and hold! Every night I dream of hands and feet; of long legs and strong arms. I carve and climb trees; I sow and reap; I chop wood and strike fires, just like other men. Christ! Even the simplest things in life are denied me. Like peeling my own apple, and wiping my own arse! Spoon fed at forty. I’m good for nothing. I wish you’d left me to the wolves.’

‘Oh Joseph! Don’t say that! I love you as a brother!’

‘You were going to lock me in the cupboard a minute ago.’

‘I didn’t mean it. Of course I didn’t. Can’t we be friends? Have I not proven my love?’

‘You don’t love me. Not really. You see me as a penance. Love? ’Tis a false love born of guilt.’

‘That’s not true! I do love you.’

‘You love me about as much as you love Maugis. Be honest with yourself. Do you think you can play the happy wife forever? He wants a child: the one thing you cannot give. Your marriage is a sham. ’Twas built on a monstrous lie. Do you deny it?’

I couldn’t answer. So I turned away and closed the door.

When I first set eyes on that manor, with its wisteria walls and ivy gables, I saw it as a haven from the world. But I had inadvertently entered a prison. This was my exact situation. Ever since our meeting by the pond, Maugis had slowly coerced me into the ranks of prostitution. For he knew many traders in spices and silk, and passed me about like a honey pot for the tasting. Every deal in cinnamon, pepper or anise was sealed by my maidenhead, (which, to my constant amazement, renewed itself nightly).

‘If you loved me, you wouldn’t share me.’

‘Share you my dear? What utter nonsense. ’Tis purely a matter of necessity. I have acquired a wife who cannot bare child. What use is a barren woman? If I can’t impregnate you, perhaps another can…’

Despite his carnal nature, his mind was well armoured with the Book of Psalms, and he would oft’ quote verses to justify his knavish ways. When raising a glass, he cried:

‘Give strong drink to them that are sad; and wine to them that are grieved in mind.”[iii]

And when legless, he wept:

‘I am the most foolish of men; the wisdom of men is not with me.’[iv]

And when crapulent at my lack of issue, he groused:

‘A good wife is a fruitful vine on the sides of a house, her children as olive plants about the table.[v] The inheritance of the Lord is children. Where is my reward? Where is the fruit of your womb?[vi]

I return again to the writing on the wall: Beatus venter qui te portavit, et ubera quæ suxisti. [Blesed is the womb that bore thee and the paps that gave thee suck (vii)]. But I had bore none, for my body was counterfeit. Without child, where would I find salvation? So desperate was I to fulfil my sex, that I visited a remote church where a large wooden phallus stood erect in the chapel wall. Women were in the habit of scraping this image, and steeping the shavings in water, which was taken as a cure for barrenness. When the phallus was shortened, a mallet blow from behind thrust it forward, to restore its original length.[viii] But alas, Priapus did naught to alleviate my condition, and Maugis became ever more angry at my lack of issue.

That Easter, after taking communion, he returned home in a drunken rage and went about the parlour smashing the pots and pans:

‘The Lord our God dwelleth on high!’

A plate shatters on the ceiling.

‘He looks down on the low things in earth.’

A cauldron cracks on the flags.

‘He raises up the poor out of the dunghill!’

A pan splinters on the chimney.

‘Yet He maketh a barren woman to dwell in my house! Oh where are my joyful children?’[ix]

I tried consoling him in a motherly fashion, for I had learnt that he was a sexual Janus, both dominant and submissive alike. At once he began sobbing like a child, so I led him upstairs to bed. That night he suckled my breasts like babe, then after spending his loins, he kissed me tenderly and said:

‘I feel very differently now. God has forgiven my sins.’

But there was no God in that house – at least none that made Himself felt. At witching hour I would creep into the garden in the hope of meeting Grazide. But her majestic Orb remained absent, and my only consolation was the moon. All the faeries had vanished from my life. As for Krew, he had not appeared since the fall of Belloc. Even Future Jack had abandoned me. If fate was ordained by providence of the Gods, surely they had withdrawn their favours at the price of so many deaths.

Things continued for a year – I kept my place and played the role of adoring wife, much to my self-disgust and strange delight. But one night, when Maugis was placing my bridle, I refused to bite the bit. Whereupon he went into a pique of rage:

‘Your beauty is naught but a torment! Making love to you is like screwing a sewn up sock! You barren vixen! Why can’t you give me a son?’

‘Me? There’s naught wrong with me. You’re too old.’

‘Too old? Nonsense! I’m potent as a stallion. A stallion I tell you!’

‘A stallion? Pah! You’re an old mule, that’s what you are! An impotent old mule.’

‘Mule? How dare you! I’ve sired six bastards this year alone!’

This wounded me deeply, not least because it reminded me of my father. So I returned the insult in the gravest possible terms. I plainly confessed that I used to be a man, and had become woman by an act of high sorcery. Further, I declared my love for Serena, with whom I was having a passionate affair. Horrified by my wicked tale, he came at me, snarling like wolf:

‘You witch! I’ll kill you with my bare hands!’

He chased me round the closet and pinned me to the bed, his hands clasped about my neck. Then he began to squeeze. So this is how it ends, I thought to myself. Looking up, knowing his face would be the last thing I ever saw, I felt two contradicting emotions, which, considering my immanent death, were quite surprising. The first was amusement, to see a man so wicked suffer on my behalf; the second was a paralysing fear that I would return as an Ox, or worse as Future Jack. I felt this terror deep my bones: that I should be hurled out of one existence into another far more terrible, and that Eternity would be an all consuming fire, spent in an asylum of the damned. So I clung to life with all my might. Maugis throttled me with a vengeance:

‘I’ll teach you! Impotent old mule. My god! Look! You’ve got a moustache, you unnatural wretch!’

I clawed his eyes and raked his cheeks. I kicked and squirmed and squealed. But Maugis just grinned and choked me harder, pushing me into the pillow. And with each struggle for breath, I grew weaker and weaker. The world began slipping away. My whole life became a vague dreamlike spectacle. And I accounted it all as a work of the most fiendish madman. Then a veil drew over my eyes and Maugis was obscured by a dark cloud. I was on the very brink of death. Somehow my flailing hands chanced upon a chamber pot beside the bed. I grappled for the bowl and with all my strength smashed it on his temple. Maugis reeled, his brow plastered in shit, then fell dazed upon the boards.

I staggered to the lancet and drew the night air deep into my lungs. ’Twas such sweet and precious air, scented with spring and all things green and good. A full moon hung low over the church and the graves lay wrapped in mist. All the powers of darkness were intent on my destruction. But once again, by some fortuitous circumstance, I had escaped death. As I watched Maugis, snoring into his chamber pot, I wondered at the decrees of God concerning my life. Many undeserving people lived out their days in states of grace; and no matter what they did, the Lord seemed willing to overlook their sins, perhaps in recompense for some past life, where they had made the ultimate sacrifice, or suffered unjustly at the hands of others. If this was not the case, then there was no justice in the world. No justice at all. As for me, my heart should have stopped long ago. I did not deserve this life. I did not deserve the blood in my veins nor the air in my lungs. After all, was I not worse than Maugis? I was infamous and guilty of the most heinous crimes. Compared to me, Maugis was a character of unblemished and irreproachable innocence!

Yes, I will confess that part of me still loved Maugis, even though he tried to kill me. I did not want to love him, for to live under the rod of a violent man is a terrible thing. Perhaps I pitied his weakness, or vainly believed I could change him. But that hour, I knew our marriage was over.

I might have fled there and then, but I was so besotted with Serena, that I dare not leave her to his clutches. (Already I had mad dreams of us running off into the sunset). Fearful for my life, I went to sleep with Joseph in the west wing. The following morn, a timid knock came at the door…

‘Jacqueline, are you there? Forgive me my dear. I know that I’ve neglected you these past few months. I’ve been heartless and cruel, and taken your love for granted. Jacqueline? What else can I say? I was drunk. And I have a nasty temper when drunk. But you must not harass me with such wicked abuse. You have a poisonous tongue. What evil, despicable tales. Now will you forgive me and open the door?’

‘You expect me to pardon you, just like that? You nearly killed me.’

‘But Jacqueline, you said such terrible things.’

‘More fool you for believing them.’

‘Come back to me Jacqueline. Let us put all this behind us. I have important business tonight. I want you to meet some illustrious friends.’

‘Why? So you can pass me about like a common whore?’

‘No, ’tis not like that. ’Tis another kind of business altogether…’

‘What sort of business?’

‘You will find out soon enough. I have no doubt that your charming voice and heavenly figure will excite a general admiration, but that is not why I ask.’

‘If I am not to be paraded about like some prize filly, then why?’

‘Will you attend? Need I remind you, ’tis your duty as my wife…’

I remain silent. The latch rattles with furious intensity:

‘Jacqueline! Stop this nonsense! Open the door at once!’

‘I will not. I will be sleeping with Joseph from now on. I shall review my position next moon. And if you treat me kindly, I will return to your chamber.’

Maugis roars with rage:

‘Next moon? I’ll find me another wife! One who is more obedient and thoughtful for my bodily needs!’

‘I’m sick of your bodily needs! You have the carnal manners of an ape!’

‘Oh my poor child. Did you think my berth would be a bed of roses? If you don’t open this door, I’ll knock it down and have you forcibly removed into the street. Is that what you want? Now let me in, you ungrateful wretch. Don’t defy me, or you and your monster will be destitute by sunset! And the inquisition will know of your witchery. I fear you are a great sinner. An ungodly unnatural woman. The greatest snare to which a man can be subjected. The Lord of Hosts will work His vengeance on you! Reversal of sex? You malignant minx! They’ll put you to death in any manner they can!’

Joseph seethes in his cot:

‘In the name of God, what have you done? Do as he says! Our lives depend on it!’

‘But if I open that door, he’ll beat me black and blue.’

‘Better the rod than the pyre. Oh! What shall become of us?’

‘Be silent Joseph! Let me think a moment.’

‘There’s no time for your harebrained plots. We should have fled last night – whilst your beloved husband was sleeping it off!’

‘We can still escape this place.’

‘No, no, no! We can’t! The hills are crawling with Dominicans. What will you tell the Inquisition? That you’re just an escaped lunatic, with harmless eccentricities? Reversal of sex? You and your big mouth! You fool! You reckless fool! What were you thinking, to tell him a thing like that?’

‘I was angry. It just came out.’

‘Well, you had better make it up with him. Do it now. Open the door. We shall ponder our plight on the morrow.’

Without delay, I turn the key and throw myself at Maugis’ feet:

‘Oh my dearest husband! How can you ever forgive me?’

He leers and runs a finger through my crown:

‘My poor Jacqueline. Will you never learn? What ever shall I do with you?’

‘Six bastards. Is it true Maugis?’

‘You should take everything I say with a grain of salt – and add a grain of sugar to everything you say to me.’

‘But is it true?’

‘No more true than your reversal of sex. To think a butterfly so glorious was once a man. What a repulsive idea.’

‘A grub may become a butterfly – ’tis Nature’s way. But this butterfly shall not become a grub.’

‘And just what is that supposed to mean?’

‘I surrendered myself to you, body and soul. But your only desire is to spoil and corrupt me. Shall you tear off my wings?’

He lets out a haughty laugh:

‘I’ve seen many a girl become a ghastly grub! All beauty fades and dies. We all grow old and become encased in fat. What makes you so different? Unless you’ve discovered the elixir of youth?’

‘Mock me all you like Maugis. But I shall not be passed about like one of your trinkets.’

‘And what of Serena? Is it true? Are you lovers?’

The words stick in my throat:

‘No, Maugis. Of course not. I just wanted to hurt you, that’s all. I understand your needs, but if truth be told, I cannot stand the thought of you with other women.’

‘Why not? God created Eve for the comfort and amusement of Adam. ’Tis the way of the world. Get used to it.’

‘You toy with me like a cat with a mouse.’

‘The fact is Jacqueline, I could not endure this life, were I not allowed my concubines.’

‘Am I not enough?’

‘When I first set eyes on you, I thought you were the pearl of all France.’

‘Do you mean that Maugis? Do you really mean it?’

‘Indeed, I do.’

‘And now? What do you think of me now?’

‘Now you are my wife.’

‘Are things so very different? Am I not still beautiful?’

‘You are.’

‘Truly?’

‘You doubt my word?’

‘Oh Maugis! Tell me that you love me! Why can’t you say it? Are you so afraid?’

‘I cannot lie. I do love you. But I find it impossible to think of one woman alone.’

‘Better you had lied to me instead.’

‘You know what they say: a man’s first lie wounds a woman’s heart, the second breaks it, the third mends it, and all the rest simply harden it.’

‘You have a wicked soul Maugis.’

‘And you the more so.’

He clasps my jaw to behold my face. His blue eyes glint in the sunrise which pierces the lancet, illuming his wispy hair like garden cobwebs. Despite his age, he is still powerful, frightening:

‘Must I punish you again?’

‘Spare me the rod, Maugis, I beg you.’

‘You hit me with a chamber pot. Let us not forget that. I awoke like a pig, covered in marl.’

‘Forgive me. I was frightened. The devil was inside you. I thought you would kill me.’

‘You will attend the meeting?’

‘Of course. Anything you say.’

‘Very well. Wear your finest gown. Seven o clock. Don’t be late…’

And with that, he stomps off down the corridor.

i. James Van Praagh, the evidential psychic medium, saw the very same after passing a Hollywood producer on the stairs.

ii. One of the laws of the “Twelve Tables” at Rome.

iii. Psalms, 36: 1.

iv. Psalms, 30:2.

v. Psalms, 127:3-4.

vi. Psalms, 126:3.

vii. Luke, 11:27.

viii. M. Dulaure says that the sexual organs were objects of worship at Porighy, Viviers, Vendre in the Bourbonnais, Cives, Auxerre, Puy-en-Velay, and at hundreds of other churches. In Provence, Languedoc and the Lyonnais, Priapus was worshiped under the name of St. Foutin, the first bishop of Lyons.

ix. Psalms; 112:4-9.

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2020