ERASMUS

I am ushered into the orangery to find Sir George and a man, who I take to be the artist, in deep conversation. I hold back in the doorway, flex my shoulders, bow my legs and circle my ankles to relieve the unfamiliar closeness of the clothes I am made to wear. They chafe and bristle, particularly at the groin and armpits; I wonder how Sir George and his kind can bear such discomfort.

They have marked my entrance, but continue to converse as though they are alone. It appears that I am the topic of their discourse, and their words treat me as an unthinking object.

‘It will be posed as an Englishman of noble birth.’

‘Will its intention be humorous?’

‘There must be no humour; it is a scientific exercise.’

‘Shall I lighten the skin and soften the grim features?’

‘The form of the body and its demeanour shall bear comparison with an ideal exemplar in alabaster, thus emphasising the diversity of the native from civilised man.’

Sir George beckons me to step forward.

I say. ‘Why are we in the orangery?’

‘’Tis the light, my dear,’ he answers. ‘The subtleties of your dark skin will be lost in the gloom of the parlour.’

The artist gestures with quick movements of his hands for me to draw near. He takes my right elbow and lifts it on to a block of wood about chest high. He pulls and pushes at my arms, legs and chin until all appears to be set. He stands back, shakes his head and clicks his tongue. He has not spoken a word to me.

‘Erasmus,’ I say.

‘What? What was that?’

‘My name, it is Erasmus.’

‘Indeed.’ He turns to Sir George. ‘That is an amusing naming for such a creature.’

He continues to adjust my stance to unknown effect. Eventually, he takes a few steps back, folds his arms and stares at me – from my head to my shoes; then back again. He hums a tune while he considers.

‘Can it be made to smile?’ he enquires.

‘’Tis not the natural state for Erasmus. It is the strangeness that confounds him. He will soften as time passes and you become familiar.’ He tilts his head towards me and says, ‘My dear, you must be at ease with your situation and follow instructions from Master Trott.’

So, that is his name. It sits well on this preening man with the temper of a whinnying colt.

‘Can it learn by example?’ He places his face directly in front of mine and curls his mouth into an intended smile, which is more akin to a sneer. ‘Just so,’ he says as though teaching a babe to hold in a fart.

I suppose I must force a smile. I have learned that an innocent smile may bring reward, or defer inevitable punishment. The scars on my back bear witness to the harsh consequences when my countenance bears true feelings.

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