Dame Carpenter: Chapter 3

Charles-Antoine Coypel


After her fortuitous meeting with King Louis XIV, Dame Carpenter is now ‘living’ in the oil painting along with the Comte, but finds her new incarnation challenging. She continues her story.

For Chapter 1, click here.  Chapter 2, click here.

Now, whether they mean to or not, I tell you: mortals mess things up.  So it was a great relief when the King gave me the freedom of these cloisters; I could at last step out of the mortal world – I mean I no longer had to pay rent or go out to work.  I didn’t need to be mortal any more.  Because living with mortals is a real trial.  They can be very complicated – evil, too, when they want to be.

Thanks to being able to step into this new world – with the help of the King of course but also the Comte – my mortal employers had to find a replacement for me.  They lost no time finding a thoroughly modern mortal woman with no sense of what happens beyond what is seen, no sense of which King was here and when, and of who the Bishop is, for example, who now stands in the courtyard to get a bit of sun on him.  And then me?  I count for absolutely nothing to my employers now I’ve gone.

Dame Carpenter’s domaine

But I haven’t really left, have I?

Anyway, she’s taken my job.

It works out that my flat here comes with that job.  Can you imagine it?  The boss insists.  So she’s now moved in, taken over my flat and filled it with her cheap rose perfume and gaudy posters.

I can’t stand these mortals.

“Please, help me get her out of there,” I plead with the Comte.

“That’s not for us to do,” he says.  “And anyway, we must stay in this painting.  Thanks to our artist, Charles Antoine Coypel, we’re immortalized here.”

“That’s no answer.  You’ve stepped out of it from time to time before now.  Go tell the King to stop her.”

“It’s no use telling the King, he doesn’t care…”

“Well just do something then.  I tell you, I’m not having her over there in my place”

“We’re not of her world,” he says, and his face hardly cracks when he gives a wry smile adding, “Now, look, we can’t complain.  We are lucky enough to be here forever and not just for a while like her. You’ll have to admit, it’s much more peaceful here.”

I go to jump up from my chair and lash out, but I can’t.  I’m stuck.  I try to wrench myself out because I see that I’ll have to go over there myself and driver her out.  But the paint here in our painting is very thickly laid, particularly where my dress meets the chair.  Our portraitist Charles Antoine Coypel will just have to accept that I’m going to have to crack it.

I manage to extricate myself.

“What are you doing?” I hear the Comte’s frail voice, “you’re ruining the picture.”

“I can repair it,” I say as I slip downstairs.

“No you can’t.  You’re only Dame Carpenter.  You come back now,” he orders me.

I’m insulted; I’m a restorer.  His attitude makes me determined to leave him.  I’m already in the courtyard.  I slip up to my flat.  She’s filled the place with some sickly perfume. She’s changed the carpet and put down a pink fluffy one.  I hear her complaining about the tree’s branches coming too close to ‘her’ bedroom window.  The day they come to cut down that tree I’ll call in the King to stop it.  I think hard of a way to drive her out that window but the perfume is too overpowering and I have to get away, so I slide into the rosewood cupboard.  Being Dame Carpenter I notice there’s a bit of woodworm here, tiny little holes in the shelves but I won’t treat it, not for her benefit.  It’s not very cosy here but at least I can breathe and then I no longer need light.

She’s lying down now.  I’ve understood she sleeps a lot and gets up quite late.  I bet they don’t like that in the office.  They are so addicted to the clock; it dominates their lives.  Let her sleep on.

I turn the plates up-side-down, open the cupboard door, hold my breath and tie knots in her fluffy carpet, pull down those ghastly posters, rip them up.  I’ll scare her out.  Tomorrow I’ll steal all her mail when it’s slipped under the door by that hand.

I say it’s not the Comte’s fault, but I draw the line at him stepping out of the canvass to deliver her mail by hand.  It seems he wrenches himself away from the paint when it suits him, but he doesn’t like me doing it.  Why can’t he leave the envelopes downstairs, like he used to do with me?  Whose side is he on?

I rip up a bill from the electricity board which she hasn’t paid.  Soon she’ll be out of electricity.  And the water:  where is her mains tap?  I tried to persuade the Comte to cut it off at the mains – anything to get her out – but he wouldn’t.  “We should respect limits,” he said in that irritating, dead pan expression.

“Respect limits?” I protested.

“Yes, and the King won’t be pleased.”

“The King?  You were the one who said the King doesn’t care.”

“Turning off at the mains affects the whole building.”

“And so what?  There’s still the well down in the courtyard.”

He kept that same calm, annoying expression.  I’ll have to tell Coypel to add more dynamism in his portraits.

You know, I don’t appreciate my Comte’s reasoning, because when you are in a partnership with someone, you expect a certain amount of co-operation.  I suppose I should be grateful for all he’s done for me, negotiating with the King for my stay here so at least my spirit isn’t wrenched form the place.  But staying stuck with him in that painting all day gets a bit wearisome, particularly when he gets so difficult.

“Please stop her from moving in.”

He really doesn’t care.  “You can’t overstep rules.  We’re just immortals,” is all he said.

I tried to scream back at him.  “Just immortals?”  But my lips are painted too close together so it all came out in a kind of spit.  “I want that silly flirtatious lady out of my place and I don’t know how to do it yet, so you’ve got to help me. She’s got to go.  She has no soul, she needs to live at least three times before she can earn her place here.  She has to throw out those awful posters, sit back and open her eyes.  Die a bit.  Help me.”

He still didn’t move.  Almost as bad as the Bishop.

“Well then, I’m leaving you.  I’ve had enough.”

His face, which had taken on a certain rougeur since he’s won me, turned pale.  That unnerved me.  Even if you’re dead you don’t have to look it.

Anyway, I digress.  To pick up on my story:  I’m now in this smooth, cool dish, inside my cupboard and she’s woken up.  She’s on the telephone now, organising a dinner for this evening.  ‘Eight o’clock this evening,’ she’s saying.  They’re back at their clocks again.

This means yet another mortal crowding my place.  This can’t go on.  I smash up teacups, saucers, plates, everything into smithereens, but she can’t hear over all her babble of course, and then she doesn’t have an ear for ghosts.  She’s lying back in that couch in those feathery slippers, raving on about her oh so quaint flat she’s just acquired.

She’ll soon see that this place belongs to…  Well, the King says it belongs to him.  But the place itself decides whom it belongs to.  And it’s chosen me.

It’s a man she’s inviting; I can tell by the way she’s laughing.  She’s repeating the time again: ‘come around eight’.  They’re so precise with their timing.  They don’t go by the sun, but by their clock.  Whether dark or daylight, they don’t care, it’s the clock that counts.

I’ve had enough.  I can’t unsettle her.  I slip downstairs, across the courtyard back up to our wall.

“Listen, you’ve got to help.  I can’t do it alone.”

Why do we women always have to turn to men?  It annoys me, but I’m desperate.  And can I really trust him?  You can’t always trust a ghost – I noticed his eyes this morning wandering over to her window and she was standing there, half-naked.  Dam him.  But what else can I do?  I don’t have any power; I’m only a woman.  A ghost woman at that.

He’s not answering; he still looks stuck.  Can’t he fight that?  His face is sickly white.  He looks frightened.  Why?  Is it the paint fading?

I raise my hand to get him to react but I can’t reach him.

“Be careful of the frame, you’ll chip it,” is all he can say.

I swing away in disgust, leave him with my newfound freedom and glide back down, over the cobbles up the stairwell and hover in front of the door.  I can smell her through it: she’s all sugary.  She’s waiting right there for her guest; he’s due any time.  Her heart is beating very loudly; I can hear it.  She’s giving the last touches to her hair which she’s curled so carefully round her head, studiously leaving a lock or two to dangle provocatively by her ears.

Then I feel someone right behind me.  He’s here.  And, oh, it’s the Comte.  He’s stepped out for her.  Not me.  And he’s taken on a mortal pose.  He’s going to dine with her?  The Comte?  The traitor!  The audacity of it.  I fling out my wrist to push him away, topple him all the way down my stairwell but my fist goes straight through him.  She opens the door and he steps through me.  She reeks of perfume.  He hands her something – and envelope – and she takes it, switches those loose locks back with a slight shake of her head – the way those kind of women do.

“Stop,” I try to push him away again, but it’s as if I’m not there.  “He’s just a ghost,” I swing round to her.  “He’s not human.  Get out.”

At last I’ve managed to open my lips more.  But then I start to cough with all that perfume of hers.  She’s sidling up to him.  Doesn’t she realize that ghosts don’t like scents and smells, unless it’s they who emit them?

He’s saying something about finding it a relief to ‘step out a bit’ and meet others. The cheek of it!  I should never have told him how she spreads herself out on my couch like Madame Recamier, it obviously whetted his appetite, just as her standing naked at the widow did.  Look, she’s doing it again, lying back in the chair, swinging her high heeled shoes on the tips of her toes, showing her long legs in those sheer stockings, leaning back nonchalantly and laughing too loudly, those perfect curls bouncing around.

I have to master my jealousy.  How can I possibly compete?  She has a body.  I thought jealousy belonged to the mortal world but it seems not, and here I go again.  I think it is very gross of him – I mean so dishonest, taking on a mortal pose and swaggering around in front of her like this.  She’s in for a shock when she realizes he’s not real.

He’s standing up.  Is he going to leave?  Already?    He’s going out the door with not so much as a kiss on the cheek.  What’s that for chivalry?

“You traitor!” I say, trying to push him downstairs, but he continues to just float quietly.  I’m disgusted; I rush back to her in the sitting room and force my lips wide open to yell.  But my lips won’t move again.  I go for her neck but I can’t strangle her because that wretched artist Coypel has given me genteel hands only made for stroking.

She’s understood something though.  She’s swiping the air with a dishcloth; she misses me, picks up her perfume, sprays me.  Now I cough, I can’t stop coughing.  She sprays again and again, snatches a magazine from her pile and lashes out with it into the air.  I switch round, try to slip away but I can’t stop choking.  She’s spraying everywhere and I’m gasping.  I make for the door, slip under it, slide down my stairwell, collapse by the well and cough and cough.  I hear my coughing go round and round then down to the depths of the well and up again onto the cobbles where I am lying and they are bumpy and cold on my back.  I can’t pick myself up but the women are here, all those women from long ago.  These women are scrubbing their sheets at the well and are staring down at me, shaking their heads and I can’t understand because I thought the King had cleared them all out and appointed me Head of this place and I can’t even stand up.

‘Ha.  The King!’ one of the washer-women scoffs.  ‘The King doesn’t care about anyone.  As long as we all bow to him. Cow-tow to him, cow-tow to him, bow and cow-tow to him.  It’s because of him we haven’t even got enough bread.   Got no bread… Got no bread…’

Their voices echo up and down and round the well, more and more angry and then I realize who they are.  They’ve come all the way from Versailles to demonstrate and chant their slogans, complain about how they’ve got no bread, no bread, no bread …  But it’s not my fault that King Louis XVI has gone too far and forgotten the people so that now they are furious and gathering in masses.  The Bastille walls will be coming down.  It’s the Revolution.  No-one wants the King anymore; no-one wants the aristocracy.  We’ll all be killed, me and the Comte included if we’re not careful.

I need help.  I turn to the Bishop.  But I haven’t even started chiselling his face back on so he can’t even talk.  And then he’s in for trouble too, with all the revolutionaries outside the cloisters.  I try to stand up and somehow I can, probably because the Comte has just floated by freeing me from this mess.  I follow him up the staircase to the third floor where he climbs back into our picture.  He’s waiting for me.

I suppose I ought to go back with him, what with all the trouble brewing outside.  Because now I understand that the King is about to be toppled.  There’s nothing but trouble in the world.  Either the King is beheaded, the aristocracy driven out of our own homes, or people cut other people’s heads off.  What a world.

Storming of the Bastille. Painter unknown. Source: Musée de la Révolution, Château de Vizille. Photo by Rama, Wikimedia Commons:

Yes, the Comte is right, it’s much safer inside the picture, particularly when he places his calming hand at my shoulder like this.  I bet Coypel is relieved too: this is how he meant it to be.

Ever since then I’ve never left the Comte.  And, you know, it’s much better like this, the pair of just watching what’s going on but staying in the picture together and not interfering with the world of mortals.  We’re much happier now together.  You see, everyone has his place and ours is here: chacun à sa place, as the French say.

French couple by Charles Antoine Coypel (Paris 1694–1752) Source: metmuseum.org/art/collection