A pounding at the front door. The dog barked. Beside him, Juana stirred.
‘Go back to sleep,’ Velázquez said, patting her linen-clad shoulder. ‘I’ll go.’ He slipped a robe over his nightgown and climbed out of bed, padding over the Turkish rugs on the wooden floor and down the stairs to the entranceway, where the housekeeper was already opening the door. Olivares, his patron – a great beast of a man – entered without ceremony and proceeded into the living room. Trailing him was a younger fellow, dressed as if for a journey.
Velázquez was in his early twenties when the chamberlain had brought him to Madrid and helped to establish him in the royal court. This was back in the 1620s,
when the King, an uncertain young man of sixteen, had not long ascended the throne. His Highness still deferred too much to those around him, which, Velázquez knew, was just how Olivares liked it.
At a look from Olivares, Velázquez dismissed the housekeeper.
‘He leaves in the morning for Italy,’ Olivares told him, gesturing at his companion. ‘I need a likeness. Can you do it?’
Velázquez knew better than to question his patron, but he wondered at the strangeness of this urgent request. Why not a daytime commission, with more time,
if a portrait was required?
Before he could respond, Olivares inclined his head to the right, as was his habit when he appeared to be making a suggestion but was, in fact, subtly directing
their sovereign in his game of puppetry. ‘From this we will be able to complete a portrait, to celebrate him on his return,’ said Olivares, straight-faced.
Velázquez nodded, steepled his fingers in front of him and pressed them to his lips, studying the younger man who seemed oblivious to his fate. What that fate
might be, Velázquez was not sure, but the circumstances of his arrival – covert, late at night, with the patron himself – did not bode well.
Olivares added, ‘He goes on an important mission for the King – to the Pope.’
Ah, so that was it. This was the messenger tasked with transporting the evidence to the Pope: a heavy load he would carry in a very small trunk. He would
not know its contents. The churchmen of the Inquisition had worked hard to provoke this concession. Evidence had been gathered; perhaps justice would be done. Yet it was to be entrusted to one man? How secure would he be? The enterprise seemed ill-judged . . . or was that intentional?
‘Please, sit.’ Velázquez could not believe this was all going ahead – and now Olivares had brought him here; was implicating Velázquez in his plan. He cursed
internally, felt his innards clenching, recoiling, but fought to keep his outward expression tranquil. ‘May I offer some wine, perhaps?’
Olivares sank into a chair with a grunt and, at his nod, the other man, the messenger, took a smaller seat by the window. He sat with his back straight, hands
on his knees, the soles of his boots pressing into the floor.
Velázquez unstoppered a carafe and poured some vino tinto for his guests.
Olivares flung off his gloves and let them fall, then took the proffered goblet.
The messenger declined the wine.
Velázquez studied his subject. The man wore a short cape and a white shirt open at the neck. There was something of the soldier in his attentive posture.
Olivares was almost smiling, as he twirled the tip of his moustache with one hand and swirled the wine in his cup with the other. ‘Make it an exact likeness. His
mother loves him, and the King will too.’ He laughed, showing his stained teeth.
Velázquez took up some paper on a board and selected a pencil from a pouch inside the sideboard. With his back to his guests, he took a few moments to
steady himself. These were the tools he kept at the house, with which he’d drawn his beloved wife, Juana, and even Ignatia. At the thought of her, his little departed angel, he took up another pencil, a new one; those that had sketched her form were sacred. There was nothing sacred about Olivares, and nothing was sacred to him. All was tradeable, even honour. And yet, he, as royal artist, had given his own loyalty to this man, and to the King.
Sighing, he returned, sat on a wooden stool, and considered his subject. He let his hand translate the man’s stubby nose and alert eyes onto the paper. Could he
see in the dark with eyes like those? He seemed to open them unnaturally wide, as if trying to let more light inside. And he had the eyelashes of a woman, bristly and black. Unluckily for him, his face was a distinctive one; there was even a mole on the side of his nose.
Velázquez made a point in the corner of the lower eyelid, for where the tears would come out. For he suspected, as he drew, that there would be tears; that his
drawing might even become a death warrant.
When it was done, Olivares took the drawing and held it in front of him, between him and the messenger. He smiled slyly, pursed his lips and nodded. Then
he frowned. ‘You’ve forgotten the . . .’ He touched the side of his nose.
‘Ah, of course.’ Velázquez had left it off on purpose, wanted to give the man a chance.
He brought his pencil to the likeness once more and sketched the raised mole
on the side of the fellow’s nose into position.
‘That will do very well,’ said Olivares. ‘Instantly recognisable.’ It was true. Poor
Velázquez released the paper into his patron’s eager hands.