“God, look at that portrait!”
“You talk as if it’s horrid,” she said.
“It’s more than horrid,” he said. “It’s positively hideous — he’s a swine in gentleman’s clothes.”
“Perhaps you’re being harsh.”
“Harsh? Humor me, Sylvia; try to see it through my eyes. Eyes… now, that’s where to start. How they glare at you, how they swipe at you, like a scythe. Do you see it? The forehead taut, as if pricked with damnation; the horn of a beard, and the bushy brows that meet in the middle — that’s damnation enough. And the bulbous nose that gives the face the shape of — why, you can almost hear him snorting, like an overgrown hog. Walk over this way; he’s still staring at you. I think he would like to eat you.”
“Stop it,” she whispered, lowering her head.
“He must have been massive,” he pressed on, “so massive he stoops under his own weight. And wonderfully cunning in the effect he wished to produce: He had the picture hung at such a height over the landing as to appear, from below, as though the master of the house himself, bandy-legged and huge in his black frock coat and top hat, were standing there measuring you with carnivorous lust.
“I have read of this man,” he continued, slowing near the foot of the stairs, “a recluse who was disposed to treat his menials savagely when in the fever-grip of drunkenness. I can imagine him, Sylvia (here — sit on this bench, furnished for just such reluctant admirers as us), hulking into classrooms at Edinburgh and thundering on the marvelous unbosomings of the human corpse. He would terrify me and fascinate me all the same. I shouldn’t think I could take my eyes off him.”
“Oh, can’t we go back to the sitting room, Mark?”
“And listen to Polly’s dreadful piano? Please, you’re trying to observe through the same liberality of consciousness with which you delight in the hyacinths in your garden. Try to view the painting my way, like a cave dweller who has learned to see his shadow in the dark. For in my vision each shadow stands distinctly revealed, the shadow behind every shard of existence, preying on its own kind, mocking itself… But enough metaphysics. Back to the picture: Help me build it up. Note the modulation of the features, how they burn themselves on your mind’s eye whether you regard the subject directly or not. They have a kind of sordid musical elegance about them which exhausts the limits of the grotesque. Our man is like a monstrous violin with a beard — no, no, that certainly won’t do. He’s like the shadow of a satyr in one of Baudelaire’s brothels; no, wait a minute, rather like the creeping arm of Sade’s nude, drooling ghost — ”
“Mark, please stop!”
He sighed, and sat on the bench beside her.
“You’re only trying to provoke me,” she said, “no man would allow himself to be depicted so.”
“Ah, but I’m merely dispensing with the trivialities of, shall we say, surface delineation; speaking in truths of the heart.”
“His heart? Is it so black, do you think?”
“I do think, Sylvia. Such a man has been stung by the viciousness of his fellow men, and indeed, his fellow women. You can tell that — assuming the artist has been faithful, of course — by the stamp of vengefulness on his brow. Left there in childhood, I would argue, for surely it would have taken him years to grow into those prominent features of his, which would have drawn accusations of wickedness in his youth, perhaps even diabolism. So that he would play the devil for survival’s sake and find the role an unshakable one, even into adulthood.”
“Then it’s all a defense,” she countered, “to close off an emptiness that might be filled by a loving woman.”
He smiled, looking from her to the landing. “And that is why you captivate me, my dear: Those God-given lenses upon your face that allow you to spot a crack of light in even the darkest corners of the spirit. Yes, perhaps love might have worked on this man once.”
“He doesn’t seem so ugly now,” she said.
There was silence a moment.
“But look,” he broke out suddenly, turning to her, his eyes shining: “Beware, Sylvia, lest your scrupulous self-regard, your romantic invulnerability (which few, I dare say, have glimpsed beneath that coronal haze of beneficence about you) should rouse that twisted creature on the landing, so that one day, one day he steps down from his portrait and with a noise like chunks of masonry hoisted with each step — thump, thump, thump — drooling like a fiendish monk — comes banging on your chamber door —”
She shrieked as his hand clamped on her arm.
“You’re insufferable, Mark,” she said, rising.
“Am I? I was swept away by my conceit.”
“I don’t know why I play along with your games. They always end in some cruel joke.”
With a barely audible huff she brushed her arm where he had touched her.
Then, with the hauteur of a dancer recovering from an inferior partner’s stumble, she thrust out her elbow and waited; so remote and so beautiful, he thought, like a prisoner in a tower of gossamer and lace sculpted from ice.
He frowned, stroking his beard; then stood.
“Thanks to my ‘scrupulous self-regard’ as you call it,” she said as they linked arms, “I asked Polly for a tour of the place before you came here. And I know there is no portrait, but only a stained glass window on the landing. A ballet of light and color so dazzling in her account of it that I ached to experience it as others do; leave it to you, Mark, to transform a celestial vision into something horrible for one who cannot see. Truths of the heart indeed.”
And so saying she allowed the broad, bowed man beside her to guide her down the hall.
George Kuato has previously appeared in the webzines Microhorror and Rotten Leaves. Under the name Charles Austin Muir, he has contributed to several small press publications, including Morpheus Tales, Mutation Nation and Darker Minds.