Well, here I am. I am Josiah Childe. Once, I was as alive as you. But the difference between us is this: that I will always be here, because I am made of canvas and oil-paint. You will be gone in - what? - ten, twenty years? I was important enough to immortalise. You are not. And so that gives me an advantage.
I admit that the painter John Riley (whose work I will permit you to admire) had some skill. He was good at texture - the lace jabot, the silken sleeves, the cascading curls of my wig. He cost me a great deal of money to employ, and I had to urge him to conceal as much as he revealed - the furniture had to display very little so that my flesh could display more by contrast. These pale hands have never done a day’s physical labour, and my fingers are tapered like a lady’s. Of course, there is blood on them. But it cannot be seen by the naked eye. My face, too, conceals more than it reveals. My lips are soft, my cheeks are round. But I am no woman. I am ruthless in commerce. Mercantilism gives me more pleasure than love. Everything can (and should be) bought and sold. The trick to is cast an air of decency over its stratagems. It suits me to appear malleable: but behind my back they call me “the Despot of Leadenhall Street”.
I headed up the East India Company. The best days were when the boats drew in to port. I would walk down the cobbled streets and be assailed by the perfumes which rose up from the hold: sweet, sour, pungeant, melancholy. I love the scent of cinnamon in the mornings. It smells of victory.
To be sure, slavery, beatings and exploitation did take place. But the spices hung over such ugly but necessary scenes and beautified them, in a way. The red-gold cloud made us see the horrors less acutely. And after all, a little nutmeg, a few cloves, will sweeten the sourness of our desires - to own things, to crush things, to devour things.
And there is the rub. Plants and people have an inconvenient habit of dying if they come from another clime. The fair sex, now. They are other than us, and inhabit a different air. One wrong word, one misplaced gesture, and they will sicken and die. I have been very unfortunate in my wives. Hannah, Mary and Emma served under me, gave me children. But each in turn wilted. They did not understand that there should be a free trade of the female body, and that there are certain pleasures to be derived from being in thrall. They were my empire too.
I sit alone now and look out at you. I would like a new wife - lissom, fecund, moist, submissive. You could be my new-found land. Reach out your hand to me. Step into this frame. You might live for ever.