Zacco looked at the room with disfavour. As a good Socialist, he found the ostentation unsettling: the marble statue, the silk-clad walls, the chandeliers - all the flash and fol-de-rol of decadent aristocracy. In particular, as an artist of the post-Krypto-concrete school, he scorned the paintings on the wall: Constable and Stubbs and their wretched chocolate-box companions. Indeed, he muttered, there would be more life in a pile of sugary sweet-wrappings. He made a note for next year's Turner- a chocolate Kolossus, built of Black Magic, After Eights, Ferrero Rocher ... It would melt symbolically and messily, epitomising Art the ephemeral, another contribution to his series on Art the emetic.
Striding to and fro, he caught sight of himself in a mirror - and was pleased to see how out of place he looked. A revolutionary symbol: a large, balding, boiler- suited figure in a gilded cage.
But why was he here? The woman on the telephone had asked him to come ready for work. Well- Duchess or not - if the old bat thought he was some sort of house painter, a rude shock awaited her. He had prepared a good rant on the subject - and the setting was ideal for a burst of the arm waving. Lots of breakables.
The clock struck four and in swept the Duchess. Zacco stopped striding - stunned. This was no old bat; this was a dream walking, bluebirds and buttercups, nymphs and shepherds. And the voice was soft summer breeze.
'How nice of you to come so quickly, Mr Zacharias.'
Zacco clicked his heels. Rudolf Rassendyll galloped hotfoot from the Zenda of his youth. 'Zacco,' he murmured. 'At your service.'
They sat on the shortest chaise longue and the Duchess looked at him closely. 'I am told that you are an artist of intellect, of integrity, of multi-variant talent.'
Zacco nodded. What more could he say?
'I need a work of art. Unconventional and mould-breaking.'
Zacco nodded again. Already, he could feel moulds breaking, conventions cracking. His multi-variant talent flexed in anticipation.
'I want something scandalous - outrageous. Can you be outrageous?'
'Outrageous?' Zacco beamed; he was on familiar ground. 'This year already, I am banned from Guggenheim, taboo in Tashkent. Outrage is my oxygen. Scandal is my soul... But not cheap. How much you afford?'
The Duchess smiled. 'Expense is no object. It is a present for my husband, the Duke.'
'But scandalous ..?'
'Please. Something utterly upsetting.'
In a corner of Zacco's mind, red flags waved and warning trumpets blared. But they were as nothing compared to the radiance of the buttercup smile. 'What have you in mind?' he said.
'Come with me.' She held his hand and he floated from the room on a wave of post-Socialist, post-post-Krypto delight. He was post-60, as well but what the hell! You got it, you flaunt it. Eat your heart out, Rassendyll... No more the swash-and-buckle now was the time for an artist to make his mark. And, whatever it took, he - Zacco - would ta0ke it, shake it, ache it, bake it, and make it - whatever ...
The hall was a place of discreet welcome: its oak-panelling and dark red carpet contrasted with the paintings ranged up the staircase. Carefully lit, they glowed like huge, jewelled windows into the past: portraits in the grand manner, a mixture of Classical and Romantic styles.
At the foot of the steps, the Duchess paused. 'Here we have it. Two hundred years of family album. Half a dozen cold-eyed Dukes. And their Duchesses - silly, pretty women - all chosen for the same crude purpose.'
They went to the top and stood beside Shepherdess in Blue. 'Maria, wife of the 1st Duke,' she said. 'By Landseer. And the rest of them: top painters everyone. What do you think?'
Zacco was at a loss. He recognised the artists - Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones and others of the ilk. Fashionable, valuable - and, in his view, quite unspeakable. Treacle pudding. Syrup and schmaltz. He closed his eyes in silent pain.
The Duchess arched a mischievous eyebrow. 'Not the sort of thing you do?'
Zacco ground his teeth. To hell with etiquette. His eyes blazed open and he fought for words ...
'No, no,' the Duchess caught him in mid-spasm. 'It's all right. I don't want another of these. I want something utterly, utterly different. Of me, but different.'
'For your husband?'
'Yes. His 50th birthday is on Friday. We're having a hundred guests; the cream of society ... Minor Royalty, possibly even Middle Royalty. All coming to see a new item in the family album.'
'A portrait of you?'
'Yes, my space is on the lower landing. He's expecting something traditional. And so it would have been ... But the painter and I ...' She flushed. '... Somehow, the picture didn't get finished ... So I need one quickly.'
'But suppose he doesn't like it.'
'That, my dear Zacco, is the whole point.' The Duchess revealed a delicious new dimple on her cheek. 'I don't want him to like it. I don't want any of them to like it. I hate the whole, boiling, bag of them and I plan to give them something to remember. Especially my odious brute of a husband. How I've stood three years of him, I don't know.' Zacco floundered. His creative juices were in ferment.
'Come on, Zacco. A chance to upset the aristos. Make a statement. And get paid for it.’
Ah, yes. Payment. Zacco looked round the hail, with its ducal trimmings, and thought of a number. '£10,000,' he said.
She didn't blink.
'Excellent. My husband returns on Friday at 5 o'clock. You have three days.'
Zacco pushed it. 'Half in advance.'
'Of course. Cash or cheque?'
Zacco prowled ... Library, Orangery, Lakeside Walk, Grand Terrace: he prowled them all. In search of a statement, a spark. His van was full of the artistic essentials. All things were possible: 2-D or 3-D, maybe an excursion into 4-D. It just needed the spark.
The Duchess made a phone call. 'Roberto? Yes, he's in think-phase. I'm sure it's going to be OK for Friday. But, whatever happens, wait at the stables from eight o'clock. Engine running.'
From her balcony, she called to the busy brain below.
'Hello, Zacco. Is there anything you need?'
It had been a long time since breakfast and his juices were slowing. 'Ja,' he called, 'Buns. Jam and cream. Black coffee.'
The Duchess closed the window and rang down to the kitchen. Caffeine and cholesterol. What a man!
In the fading light, Zacco clumped round the Maze. He was lost, but no matter: he found the endless canyons of green yew strangely stimulating. He had decided to enter a maze for the Pandolfsky: In Search of the Psyche. With skeletons. And a pit for the unwary critic.
For the tenth time, he came across the discarded bun-bag. For the tenth time, he kicked it aside. And then, as such things do, the spark struck. The shape spoke ... Wunderbar! Everything became clear. The form, the function, the message. Only three days to go, but he could do it! A quick dash home for key items and he, Bruno Zacharias, would make his fortune.
He crashed through 200-years-worth of yew and ran to the house. The Duchess saw him coming and arranged her hair. If all else failed, she would get him to do a Medusa.
She was impressed by his idea. It promised a striking re-interpretation of the aristo-wife portrait. 'But can you do it in time?'
'Of course.' Zacco's eyes were fired with creative purpose: the everyday constraints of time and space would be bent to his will. 'I make secret process. Just two things. One: I have world reproduction rights.'
'Yes, yes. The more the merrier.'
'And Two: take off your clothes.'
On Friday evening, the hall glittered as never before. The panelling gleamed, the chandeliers blazed, the air was alive with anticipation. The last of the Duke's '69 wetted the throats of the great and good.
The new Work hung in its appointed place. Curious eyes noted the unusual frame, but could see nothing behind the tight -fitting cover.
The unshaven Zacco moved through the crowd, munching cream buns and keeping his lip carefully curled. He was making an artistic statement, but he was also keeping an eye on the Work. One thing was certain: they wouldn't easily shift it. After the episode at the Guggenheim, he had designed an armoured-glass box-frame that was practically indestructible.
Eight o'clock. Nearly speech time. The Middle Royal moved to centre stage. The Minor Royal seized a bottle of the '69 and went to the Library.
Down the upper stair-case swept the Duchess: a vision in blue. On her head twinkled her Number One tiara. In her bag were Numbers Two and Three, together with assorted pendants and pearls. Her dowry for Roberto.
The Duke stared at his wife. His curved nose and slitted eyes were those of a bird of prey, searching for lambs to slaughter. As always, her youth and vitality both excited and enraged him. He looked forward to a vengeful night. In the shadow of the stables, lights dimmed, an Alfa Romeo purred softly to itself.
The Duchess stood on the lower landing and spoke to the gathering below. 'How splendid to see you here tonight. How happy I am to express my feelings at this birthday celebration.' She gestured to her husband and warmed to her theme. 'And how appropriate for me to stand here, at the end of a long line of family portraits. For I am, indeed, the Last Duchess. And I am making my final appearance in this hell-hole.'
A hundred jaws dropped; a hundred sets of cheeks paled. The Duchess's voice was soft as ever, but there was a spark in her eye. 'Yes. I am the last of these young women. Each of them tricked and exploited - for their looks, for their bodies, for their babies. For that wonderful thing: the ducal succession. Which, I am delighted to say, will now come to an end.' Her smile was lemon-sweet. 'Because the 6th Duke is not only a malignant drunkard, he is also impotent.' Eyes swivelled to the Duke. His face purpled and he rocked against the banister-rail.
'I leave a memento of that for which I was brought here ...' She took hold of a concealed cord within the cover of the Work. '... I give you The Last Duchess ...'
The curtain fell away.
The great and good suffered massive eye-pop. Medium Royalty fell off the bottom step.
The Work gleamed, proud and pink, within its frame. A life-moulded replica of the 6th Duchess: perfect in every 3-D curve and crevice. With hair, eyes and lips freshly coloured, the plastic figure had an uncanny realism: young and vibrant.
Secret process, glowed Zacco. Perfect shape, substance, and texture. One is good. Twenty is better. Ten thousand will be a triumph.
The crowd swirled and fought for a closer look. The detail really was incredible. Goose-pimples and -er, everything.
The 6th Duchess melted away, heading for the stables and a new life. En passant, in a corner of the Library, she noticed the Minor Royal dancing unsteadily with a pink Duchess. A crowd of replicas watched with plastic indifference. She knew how they felt.
Standing on a chair in the hall, Zacco waved a duplicate Duchess. 'Please to listen,' he bellowed. 'Your Artist speaks. First edition in the Library now: twenty copies only. At £500, I give. Choice of three perfumes ... After this, local Sex Shops.'
The Duke roared. Footmen flung themselves up the staircase. Axe and crowbar beat at the frame. All to no avail.
In the Library, Zacco put his arm round a pink Duchess and patted its posterior. 'Perfekt,' he beamed.
The great and good stretched out their fingers. They prodded the Duchess in tender parts. They reached for their wallets.