Bewildering Stories

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The Lady’s Painting


by Rick Combs

Part 1 appeared in issue 60.

“I’m going to give you a list of things, a recipe if you will, that you need to follow exactly. If you do that, I believe your wish will come true. You’re a painter, correct?” Edgar said as he glanced around the room at the accouterments of John’s trade.

“Yes, I do portraits of people.”

“Okay, take this list,” Edgar pulled out a slip of paper and a pen. He wrote furiously for a few minutes and then handed the list to John. John began to read the list; something from his true love, something he held dear to himself, fresh goat’s blood and the oil from a clove of garlic.

“What’s all of this...?” John started.

Edgar interrupted him. “I said no questions! Just gather the items and mix them together with your black paint. Use the paint to place yourself into the portrait as part of the background. The more she looks at the portrait, the closer you will be. Do you understand?”

John looked at Edgar and nodded his head. Yes, he understood. To himself, though, he wasn’t sure he’d try it.

Edgar picked himself up from the couch and stood over John. Although Edgar was shorter in stature than most men in the town, he seemed to tower over John at that moment. “Do not forget my words,” he said. “Use fresh ingredients and do exactly as I’ve said. It will take time, so you will need to be patient. And remember that what we wish for is not always what we want.” With those final words, Edgar opened the door and was gone.

John sat at the table for a few moments absorbing everything that had just happened. Finally, John gathered his senses about him and went to the door. John looked outside up and down the street, but Edgar was nowhere to be seen. “Strange,” John thought to himself. “What did he do? Run as soon as he left?”

Returning to the relative comfort of his workshop, John pondered the strange visit. What was the reason for Edgar’s visit? There had to be more to it than Tomas asking Edgar to help John. Strange. John sat down at his table and made a quick meal for himself. Jessica would be returning for another sitting in the morning and John wanted to get his sleep to be at his best when she arrived.

Dousing the single light in the room, John reclined back on the couch and quickly fell asleep. His dreams that night were a convoluted mixture of Edgar, Jessica and himself. Edgar was taking Jessica away and John was trying to catch them to prevent losing her. The last thing he remembered was Edgar shaking his finger at John and saying, “Remember what I said!”

* * *

The new day dawned with a glorious burst of color in the sky. A stray sunbeam poured in through the window and splashed on John’s face. The brightness brought him out of his sleep and he slowly stretched his greeting to the day. Today would be Lady Jessica’s final sitting for the portrait. John got up from his bed and started his morning preparations; a quick bite to eat from last night’s meal, a splash of water on his face. He decided to spend the extra time and washed out his hair. Since this would probably be his last chance to impress Jessica, he wanted to look his best.

As the morning passed into afternoon, John started preparing his paints and tools of his trade in preparation of Jessica’s arrival. He heard a soft knock on his door. Rushing to open the door for Jessica, John was startled to see one of her handmaidens instead.

“My pardon, Master Painter,” the girl began, “but my Lady will not be coming today. She asked me to beg forgiveness but she will not be able to sit for the portrait anymore. She hope’s that your memory of her will suffice to complete the painting.”

John’s mind cried out in anguish. He wouldn’t have another chance to see Jessica! He worked to keep the look of hurt from his face. “Tell the Lady Jessica that I understand and I will try to complete the painting this week for her and her husband.”

The handmaiden accepted his words and said she would convey the message to her lady. Without another word, she turned and left John standing in his doorway. As he watched her walk towards the keep, he felt like every nerve in his body had gone numb. All he could do was stand in the doorway, wishing that none of this were happening.

After the handmaiden was no longer visible, John closed the door and collapsed on the couch, the couch Jessica had laid upon just a few days ago. Rubbing his hand across the arm where her head had been, John noticed some of her hair had been caught on the worn fabric. A beautiful shade on gold, he thought as he picked up several strands of her hair and held them up to allow the sunbeam to sparkle on them. John sat on the couch and daydreamed about Jessica and the life he wished they could share.

He decided he needed to make arrangements for the delivery of the portrait. He didn’t trust himself to stand before the Lady Jessica and not to profess his love for her. That was something that could only bode badly for him in the Duke’s keep.

Arising from the couch. John grabbed his cloak and headed outside. He was surprised at how most of the day had slipped by. John turned towards the Stag’s Head Inn again and started walking in the growing twilight. Once he reached the inn, John took a seat along the back wall and flagged down one of the wait staff. He ordered a beer and food and then leaned back against the wall. The beer arrived and John took a deep gulp of the amber liquid. John couldn’t keep the questions and his dreams out of his mind. He was still trying to find answers when his food arrived. John turned his attention to the food and tried to put everything else out of his mind.

“So, twice in as many weeks!” Tomas said as he took a seat opposite John. “And, from the look on your face, you seem more like yourself than last we met.”

John looked at his friend while taking a bite of the bread lying on his plate. “I don’t know whether to beat you or to thank you,” he mumbled through the mouthful of food. “You have some strange ways about you at times, but I guess I should say thanks.”

Tomas grinned at his friend. “We all need help at one time or another.”

“True, but messing with arcane arts isn’t the normal type of help one searches for.”

“So, I take it Edgar did drop in to visit you. All I asked him to do was chat with you; anything else would have been your own doing,” Tomas said as he took a pull off of his own beer, “and whatever the two of you talked about seems to have helped!”

“Yes, Tomas, we talked for a bit. And I do thank you for sticking your nose into business that probably is better left alone,” John replied. “And now I have another favor to ask of you. Would you come by the day after tomorrow and deliver the portrait to the Duke’s keep for me? I just can’t bring myself to that task. I’ll finish it tonight but can’t bear the thought of delivering it myself.”

“John, my friend, I’ll do that simple thing for you. I understand how hard it would be for you to see her again. I’ll come by that morning and deliver it for you.”

“Thanks, Tomas. You really are a friend.”

“And lucky you are that I’m around watching out for you!” Tomas laughed. “Well, it’s an early bed for me tonight, the Duke’s guards are bringing their horses in the morning to be re-shod. Goodnight, my friend and rest well.”

John returned the salutation and watched his friend leave. Glancing around, he noticed that the inn was fairly empty tonight. “Not much happening here,” John thought. “Perhaps I should follow Tomas’ example and do the same.” John finished the remaining bits of food, left money on the table for the victuals and left the inn for home.

Once John arrived back at his workshop, he hesitated. He should start work on finishing the portrait. But the thought of seeing Jessica’s face, even in a picture, seemed to weight heavily upon his mind. “Well, John, you need to face it sooner or later,” he thought to himself.

He went to his workbench and began to straighten up his paints. He didn’t think he could paint anything right at this moment, but the familiar motions helped to ease his internal pain. He noticed a slip of paper on the workbench. Picking it up, he re-read the list Edgar had written. John thought about the note and thought about the strands of hair, something from his true love. “Of course,” he thought. “It wouldn’t really hurt anything if I try it. Who knows, maybe it would actually work. Anything is better than this ache in my chest!”

With this sudden resolve to actually try what Edgar had told him to do, John went back to the couch and extracted every strand of her hair he could find. He found three other strands, for a total of five. He thought that should be more than enough. Now for something dear to himself. He looked around the workshop at the clutter of his life and thought about what items he really held dear. “My brushes are the most dear to me,” he thought. With that, he picked up one of the first brushes he had made as an apprentice. He carefully pulled several strands of the brush out and placed them with the strands of Jessica’s hair.

“Fresh goat’s blood. Now the only place to get that is the butcher’s shop,” he thought as he read the list of items once again. “Garlic cloves. I wonder if Old Luke would have some of that.” John finished up with his straightening and carefully placed the hairs in a small pestle he used for grinding his paints. He threw on his cloak and left the workshop with the step of a driven man.

Old Luke had the garlic and gladly gave his friend a few cloves, asking what the meal was and for whom. John just thanked him and left, heading straight for the butcher’s shop. John purchased a haunch of goat and asked for a small flask of the blood, saying that he was going to try a new recipe that used the blood as part of a new marinate for the meat.

Arriving back at his workshop, John sat for a few moments and thought about everything Edgar had said. He was to mix them with his black paint and then paint himself into the picture. John reached for his flask of lamp black and poured some into the pestle with the strands of hair. He added a clove of the garlic and some of the goat’s blood. Using his mortar, John began to grind the mixture together. He added more lamp black to get a more consistent shade of black. As he continued the grinding process, his thoughts strayed to Jessica and his desire for her. He knew he could make her happy and knew that being with her was the only thing he wanted from life.

As he ground the compounds together, he saw that the mixture was turning smooth rather than lumpy as he expected from the hair included in his mortar. After more grinding, the liquid mixture achieved the pasty consistency he needed for his painting. Pouring it into an empty container, John carried the concoction to the easel and the Lady Jessica’s portrait.

Carefully lifting the heavy canvas cover off of the painting, John looked into the eyes staring back from the canvas. “My Lady,” he thought. “I do this for you and I.” The painted, knowing smile seemed to be only for him. Taking a brush in his hand, he studied the picture. Where to place his image in the background so it wouldn’t be noticeable was a problem. John finally decided that on the right-hand side would be best. He’d paint himself as though he were looking down at her.

His brush flew over the canvas, his image quickly taking shape on the canvas. The black concoction seemed to mix with the paint already on the canvas, blending in a way John had never seen before. The blending effect helped add depth and nuance to his self-portrait. Part of his apprenticeship had been to make numerous self-portraits; he knew the look of his face without having to use a mirror. Shortly, John had completed his task. John had tried to will his love for Jessica into each and every stroke of his brush.

Placing the mixture to the side, John next took up his palette of colors and began to finish the portrait of Lady Jessica. While performing the final touch-ups to her beautiful face and graceful arms, John noticed that his portrait of himself had faded into the background, mixing with the other paints so well that he could just see his features dimly showing and then only if he was close to the painting. Stepping away, he saw that his image was not even visible when viewed from a normal distance. “Well, that’s one worry off of my mind,” he thought. When adding himself to the painting, he had worried that the Duke would question John’s addition and take serious offense to its inclusion.

At last, John stepped back from the painting and cast a critical eye to the finished work. “One of my best, if I do say so myself!” he thought as he smiled at his work. “A beautiful painting for a beautiful lady.”

John replaced the protective canvas covering and cleaned up his tools. The sun had set, leaving the workshop in a dull world of its own, lit only by the pale glow of his old oil lamp. Looking around the workshop, John seemed to see everything in the grays that night always brought.

* * *

John’s dream that night was very strange. He saw Edgar standing across a room yelling something at John, but he couldn’t hear the words Edgar was saying. He saw Jessica laying on a bed and someone with his back to John approaching her. He saw Jessica open her arms to the man. John couldn’t understand what was going on. He started wake, drenched in sweat, still trying to reach that man to pull him away from Jessica.

“A nightmare,” he thought to himself as he tried to calm himself. “But so real!” John lay back down on the couch and tried to go back to sleep. But sleep would not come to him. He tossed and turned for an hour or so before getting up from the bed. “I might as well do something since I’m not going to sleep,” he thought. “Maybe a walk will clear my head enough.”

John dressed himself and let himself out the door. The night’s sky was just revealing the colored hints of the approaching day. John started walking towards the docks, thinking about his dreams and the confused way they made him feel. Before he knew it, he had reached the dock area with its numerous ships. The activity at the docks never stopped here, day or night. John sat upon a barrel that provided him with a view of the ships and watched the busy dockhands move the crates and pallets from place to place. The Duke’s keep loomed above the dock area, its massive stone frame projecting a sense of the power retained within its walls.

The semi-night before the dawn was comforting to John. For the first time in many weeks he felt like his old self, although just a bit stretched. As the sun peeked above the horizon and threw its first rays of light across the land, John arose from his perch and started the walk back towards his workshop. There was something about the dawn that made him uneasy. Walking in the growing light, he felt as though anyone he passed knew that he had dabbled with magic. The darker shadows cast by the buildings he walked past was more comforting.

* * *

A day later, Tomas arrived and knocked on John’s workshop door. Receiving no answer, he went in and saw the portrait propped within its easel stand. Tomas took some of the rope he had brought and wrapped it around the canvas covering to protect the painting on its way to the keep. Lifting the painting, Tomas was surprised at its weight but being as strong as he was, it was no match for him. He carefully carried it out of the workshop and proceeded down the road towards the Duke’s keep.

Tomas announced himself to the gate guards. He had to spend several minutes waiting before being lead into the keep. His guard said nothing as he led him through the silent halls and into the main reception area. This was the room the Duke used to hold his audiences and councils. The Duke was sitting in his throne chair on top of a small dais. Tomas saw the Lady Jessica standing beside the Duke with her hand lightly resting on the Duke’s shoulder. Tomas approached and stopped where the guard indicated, standing the portrait on the floor.

“Sir, where is the Master Painter?” Jessica asked Tomas.

“Milady that I do not know. He asked me earlier to make this delivery for him. Perhaps he’s taken a sabbatical.” Tomas replied as he bowed deeply to the Lady and her Duke. “The painter is a friend of mine and lately he has become quiet at times. None of us can truly understand the mind of an artist.” Tomas thought he was very clever to cover his friend’s absence in this way.

“That is a pity,” the Duke said in a deep, rumbling voice. “I wanted to thank and pay him personally for his work. I’m sure your friend has his reasons for not wanting to participate in the presentation of his work. Hopefully, it’s worth the money I’m paying for it. Guard, remove the canvas so we can see the portrait.”

The guard who had led Tomas into the keep came over and, drawing his blade, cut the rope around the painting while Tomas held it steady. Reaching up, the guard grabbed the canvas covering and removed it from the portrait.

“Truly, your friend is a master at his craft!” The Duke exclaimed upon seeing the portrait, half raising from his throne. “My lady looks even more beautiful than in real life, if that’s even possible,” the Duke said smiling at Jessica.

“I told my lord that this would be a wonderful addition to our chambers,” Jessica replied, returning the smile of her Duke.

“Guard, take the portrait to our chambers and hang in on the wall across from our bed,” The Duke ordered. “As for you,” he indicated to Tomas, “please express my gratitude to your friend for me and inform him that I will dispatch his payment this week.”

“As you will, my lord.” Tomas bowed and turned to follow the guard out of the room and the keep.

Tomas headed back to John’s workshop to tell him everything that had happened and all that the Duke had said but John was not there. He checked with Old Luke, but John hadn’t been in since the previous night. Not overly worried, Tomas went on to his job in his father’s blacksmith shop and commenced his day’s work. As the day wore on, Tomas thought he’d stop by that night and talk to John.

But again, he couldn’t find John at his home or at any of the inns in town that John normally haunted. Tomas started to worry since this was so unlike his friend; regardless of the small lie he had told the Lady Jessica. After two more days of not finding his friend, Tomas decided he needed to visit Edgar and find out what the two of them had talked about. Maybe Edgar had told John to leave the town for a while.

Reaching Edgar’s house, Tomas knocked lightly on the door. Edgar cracked the door and peeked out at whomever was disturbing his peace. Seeing Tomas, he opened the door widely a greeted the young man.

“So, Tomas! Whatever brings you back out to my house again? Do I need to visit another sick friend of yours,” he joked.

“No, Edgar, I’ve come to ask about John,” Tomas said as he crossed over the door’s threshold. “I haven’t seen John for several days now. I thought you might be able to give me a clue, perhaps something the two of you talked about.” Tomas’ eyes pleaded with the old man.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Tomas but I don’t have any idea where your friend could be. When I talked to him, all he could talk about was being in love with the Duke’s wife. No, he didn’t tell me who, but everyone knows who he’s been painting. Most people would just accept that as impossibility but he was very adamant about his love for the Lady Jessica. I figured, from what you had told me about him and his lack of any love life, that it was something he’d get over in time, especially once he realized the futility of that particular dream.

“So I wrote some garbage down on a piece of paper and told him that the longer she looked at the painting, the more she’d want to be with him. I figured he’d get tired of waiting and start getting back to his own life sooner or later. Especially since he doesn’t believe in magic. Not that there is any such thing.” Edgar said with a frown.

“Well,” Tomas said, “if you see or hear anything about John, please let me know.”

“Yes, yes I will. Don’t worry Tomas, I’m sure he’s around here somewhere.”

* * *

John saw, as through a dream, his Lady Jessica lying on her bed, her lovely arms held up in welcome. He was above her and could look directly into Lady Jessica’s eyes. The strange man from his dreams had his back to John and was approaching her. She was eagerly awaiting him. John tried to yell to warn her but she couldn’t hear him. John’s feet felt tied to the ground, preventing him from racing to her protection.

“My Lord,” He heard her say.

“My Lady,” The Duke responded as he joined her on the bed. He watched as the Duke placed his hands on Jessica and pulled her towards him.

“My Lord, could we have this portrait moved to another room tomorrow?”

“Why Jessica?” The Duke replied.

“It’s just that since we’ve had it hanging here, I always feel as though there are other’s in the room watching us. At times, especially in the early morning light, I can almost see eyes in the picture watching me.”

The Duke laughed. “Yes, my darling wife, whatever is your wish, that is my command.”

Jessica looked at the Duke and smiled, laying her head upon his chest. “Thank you, My Lord. And glad I am to be your loving wife!”

John saw the love for the Duke in Jessica’s eyes. He felt his insides being twisted and torn. He knew that his desire for Jessica would never be shared, never returned. He tried to will himself out of this dream, knowing he wouldn’t be able to wake up. He knew what would happen next and couldn’t stand the thought of it any more.

It would be the same dream he’d had every night. The dream he’d experience for the rest of his life.

Copyright © 2003 by Rick Combs

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