CHAPTER IV THE TELLING OF A GHOST STORY (excerpt)
Camden Town, 1880
wo months after Julian Paradine had introduced us to his latest Muse, Matthew and I were at home in Calsmere Square. I looked up to see him standing at my bedroom door, gazing listlessly at me as I lay reading. He appeared preoccupied, restless somehow. I intuited that he wasn’t really seeking conversation, only a moment’s distraction from his thoughts. It is true that hindsight informs me here but even then I could tell his spirits were low. I had heard that Matthew tried to call on poor Daniele several times, but my brother’s friendship was unwanted, his company shunned. Such was the ill-feeling between the two, their bond was broken, perhaps for good.
Matthew stayed in his room more often, and on the previous occasion I saw him, he stated that his painting possessed entirely new qualities and he had ‘never done finer work.’ I hesitated to wonder about these ‘new qualities’. Over his shoulder, I noticed the floor was littered with discarded scraps of paper. He quickly moved to block my view, although nothing could be seen clearly from such a vantage point. I suspected that he had found or imagined his ideal, and was struggling to capture her essence in his art; he had sketched a familiar profile on the margin of several pages. The thought came to me in a moment—I resisted, but it would not be so easily cast into a backroom of my mind: could Alatiel be Matthew’s beloved?
Perhaps Daniele had not been the one he wished to visit…. Now, as he lingered at my door, I spoke, simply to break the silence.
“I am writing a scandalous novel, as every
young lady should,” I said, in order to amuse him.
He laughed, or rather, he expelled a little air from his nose.
“The next time I meet my friends, perhaps you should stay here and knit, or sew, or whatever it is young ladies are supposed to do.”
I pouted and made my foot strike the bed. At least I had coaxed a reluctant, fleeting smile from my brother.
“They are my
friends too,” I said. “Except for Callum Flynn.”
“Oh, don’t worry about him. He’s harmless enough. What are you writing?”
“A ghost story.”
“Very well. Alexandre and Aliénor are in love but her wealthy father forbids the young woman to see the poor artist—the scandal would outrage his business associates and delight his many enemies. In despair, they take their lives so they can be together eternally. It’s so
sad … now they are spirits, their forms drift within the wind, calling out but in vain. They can no longer hear or see one another … and so the two lovers are destined to haunt the same lonely forest where they died, but apart for all time, and that
is the real tragedy. I confess—”
Matthew’s smile faded in an instant. “What charming
nonsense. And what is the moral of this tale of woe? That we should all be content to live out our days under the rule of society’s hypocrites? If I could not have love, I would welcome death … welcome it.
I attempted to hide my disquiet at his change of temper and looked away, pretending to study the text once more.
“Those are not my words, dear brother, nor are they my true thoughts; I was simply telling you the story. You know I only wish for your happiness.”
My words were wasted, as he had already left. I laid my head upon a pillow and tried to keep myself from weeping.
I began to absent myself from home more and more, thus avoiding Matthew’s strange, shifting moods. On one of my joyless outings, I caught sight of Julian Paradine at Lady Forsyth’s salon. I waved, from a distance, then swiftly lowered my hand as two elderly ladies stared in evident disapproval. They turned away and continued to pester a thoroughly bewildered foreign person—a musician or an artist, perhaps. Lady Forsyth cared nothing for mere talent, only for exotica; the man appeared to be one of her conversation pieces.
I knew I had caught Julian’s eye but, to my shame, he ignored me. His right hand held a thin, dark cigarette which he waved around and around his head as he spoke to two disreputable-looking characters. His relentless, conceited talk drowned out the music and for once I was appalled—he seemed to have changed so much, and not for the better. I resolved to see him privately—at home, so to speak.
The following afternoon I spent an awkward half-hour walking the street opposite the studio while I decided whether to return to Calsmere Square or risk disgrace. Happily, Rufus Howard the art dealer stepped out of a hansom and stood outside the door; sensing my chance, I engaged the gentleman in polite small talk and daintily took his arm.
Mr Howard was not one to stand on ceremony; he brushed past Julian’s young maid—who, disconcertingly, tearily beseeched us to turn back—and led me to a spacious room which had evidently been neglected of late. One could tell, even in its present ramshackle condition, that Julian had formerly created a ‘honeypot’ to draw in potential patrons and impress those who would ordinarily look down on any artist, no matter how gifted. But now there was an air of desolation about the place, confirmed by the torn drapes and haphazard positioning of what was once fine furniture.
The source and emblem of this misery perched provocatively upon a gaudy throne-like chair which seemed to engulf her; the scene resembled a child usurping an adult’s dinner place. Alatiel – for I knew it was she by the slenderness of her physique – leant back as if suddenly weary, her long fingers hanging over the edge of the seat. Curiously, she wore a tall and tapering white hat and Julian had draped her in gauze, as though she were terribly injured, or perhaps, embalmed. I had long been accustomed to my artist friends and the Medieval or Romantic themes which inspired their work but nevertheless I became anxious; the ‘throne’ put me in mind of Elizabeth Paradine, baleful disturber of my sleeping hours. As Alatiel removed the thin strip of fabric which obstructed her sight, my fear increased until I could no longer trust myself to see or think clearly. The dressing now appeared to me as a shroud, and she, a revenant. I fancied I saw no flesh surrounding her yellow eyes; Callum Flynn’s words – ‘a single strand of darkness’ – only reinforced this strange vision of mine. I was relieved when the still atmosphere was disturbed as Mr Howard stepped briskly forward to address Julian and his muse.
As he began to speak, Alatiel’s fingernails lightly drummed the carved armrests in impatience, as if mimicking or paying homage to the source of my nightmares.
“Well, I must say, Paradine … I really must advise you to—”
The elder man’s lecture halted the second that Julian, his once-handsome face stained with dirt and lines of weariness, turned to fix him with a look of undisguised contempt.
,” Julian hissed.
I was about to speak, if only to distract the two of them, when Alatiel raised herself and began to peel away the cloth from her upper body with a slow, exaggerated deliberation. Her bosom would soon be exposed to all but she made no move to preserve her dignity and her eyes remained fast upon Rufus Howard. His face coloured immediately, but he did not look away. Alatiel’s childlike smile grew into one of knowing, of seduction, of ageless corruption. You may believe this was a mere fancy of mine, if it affords you some comfort; however, I know what I saw
Julian stood tall, as if he were proud, his back facing a large canvas depicting a public execution. Now, I understood the inspiration behind Alatiel’s curious costume; Julian had fashioned her as a victim of the Inquisition, obliged to wear the coroza
and make a show of penitence before her burning. But the picture before us presented the heretic triumphant over her wretched peers – the fierce flames turned away from her body and licked at the faces of those who huddled together at the foot of the pyre. These wild-eyed and lustful voyeurs Julian had painted in the likenesses of his friends and patrons. Even as the fire coursed towards the crowd, they remained still, their gaze fixed upon the bound form of the godless creature who loomed over them; the very same monstrous idol who now viewed our dismay with satisfaction.
Julian seemed disappointed in us, as though our blanched faces offended him. As he attempted to push us from the room, Alatiel strode to his side. She appeared
to be naked now, the pale gauze becoming ever more transparent, and this revelation only increased my desperate desire to be gone from this place. I could clearly see the bones of her thin legs and the jutting edges of the hips whose motion threatened to tear through the fabric. Her lower body seemed sexless, the tone of her flesh unnatural and more reminiscent of rosé champagne than anything real. Alatiel and her familiar need not have assaulted me; I left them trailing in my wake. I did not care to look behind me as I ran; I felt their presence at my shoulder as it was...
The Portrait of Alatiel Salazar will be published by Immortal Ink in June, 2012.