Chapter 1 : Creation
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And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights.
-Sonnet 106, William Shakespeare
She came to life with careful caresses of the brush, from a hazy shadowland of shapes and textures. She was brought forth from the canvas with a gentle shading and stroke which create a great, dangling flap of skin on her neck, with brilliant pinks muted to form the contours of the rotund shape knit tightly inside her frock.
Like all great artists he saved the eyes for last, leaving glimmers of a shadow where the windows to her soul would take place, if she was to be granted a soul. The true nature of souls was beyond his interest and skill of understanding. On the fifth day he painted her ears, pale, slender shells which curved softly from beneath her tight black scalp of rich, dark curls. And so she heard them speak. They were ignoring the painter: ignoring her. Their voices dripped with restrained glamour, like gluttonous princesses.
“Really, Violet darling, he is such a catch,” one voice sounded, imperious and impeccably feminine. “I could hardly believe the news when I was told. Do fetch my Chinese fan for me, there’s a dear.”
There was the soft sound of dainty slippers being shuffled across the floor, and a sharp snap.
“Ah, that is better,” the lady said, not bothering to thank her friend. “These hot London months are such a bother, I can hardly bear to lift my wand as it is so dreadfully hot.”
“I suspect tis the heat from those dreadful factories up in Manchester,” the character called Violet sniffed in a nasally voice. “My house elf was at the Borough market fetching some fresh herbs and she heard talk of the great smoke clouds which hang over those Northern cities like dreadful demons, like the breath of the devil himself, she said them merchants were saying.”
“Those merchants, Violet,” the unnamed voice said strictly. “You have not risen so far to return to common thoughts and ways, do not let the horrifying heat allow you to forget your place.”
And that was all she heard, for the painter chose that moment to make her ears tinier, and she was quite deaf for another day until he chose to concentrate on the explicit curves once again.
On the ninth day, she was given eyes at last, the final, most precious touch to another masterpiece. He painted the left eye first, and she was treated to her first view of the world: a very close-up view of the painter’s nostril hairs as he tutted to himself and noticed a knotted curl that had been blown out of place. She saw his hands, dirty and delicate, the receding hairline that more proper gentlemen would have hidden with a wig. But Percival Podmore did not care for such vain dalliances of the class of those he painted. He cared for the beauty and magic of his work, and for Galleons, and usually in that order.
Behind the artist she drank in the vision beyond her frame: a richly decorated salon. The first thing she noticed was the ceiling, which looked as if the sky itself had been cleaved in two to give humanity the chance to look up upon the angels. Fat, naked cherubs floated through a brilliant blue, the pads of their chubby feat treading against the wood of the ceiling. A sparkling city glittered in the distance, while among the angels floated bearded deities and beautiful women with fruitful bosoms and soft, round thighs, looking distantly down at the scene below. As she looked up, one of the women who wore a helmet and carried a shield like a warrior looked down her with benevolent eyes, an owl perched upon her shoulder. As she watched, the warrior goddess seemed to raise a prideful hand which floated at her side in a gentle wave. Another figure wore winged sandals, with white feathers that seemed to flutter in an unknowable breeze.
Beneath the celestial ceiling, she observed a room richly draped in fine, plush furniture in shades of pink and red. White marble statues peeked from the corners of the room, and the sun shone from behind long curtains which draped gracefully over the long windows. A rich carpet covered the floor, and tapestries of faded brilliance hung from the walls. Several engraved cabinets trimmed with gold and silver lined the walls, from which precious and delicate-looking jewels and artifacts glimmered. She could see the gilded frames of other portraits, from which shadowy faces seemed to peek.
But the center of the room, more powerful than the godly heavens of the ceiling, brighter than the sun which battled the pink curtains, was the extremely fat lady who dominated its center. Her lips were pursed in a petulant pout, her eyes beady and bright as they seemed to disappear in her large, round face. Folds of skin hung from her body in an almost graceful manner. Her large body had been folded and tightened into a bright pink dress with lacy frills poking from the wrists and neckline, and her hair was bound in tight corkscrew curls with girlish ribbons. She lay out on a poufy chaise, her feet crossed neatly at the end revealing tight pantyhose which strained a little at the seams, and chubby ankles which sagged a little over the slippers covering her surprisingly thin and dainty feet, toes pointed away from her.
The sight of the fat lady shocked her and so she blinked in surprise, causing the painter, who had finished with the second eye, to recoil with excitement. He set down his paintbrush and examined her more closely: she felt herself draw away slightly in shyness.
“I ‘ave done it, me lady!” The artist cried out. He clapped his hands like a child. “Did you witness it? The piece has already been urged into motion by me great skills. Usually it takes the final coat of paint and a few spells to urge them into the imitation of life. Aye, the creature is a masterpiece indeed.” He examined her with a sharp eye, glittering greedily. She felt that she should shrink from him, but her body was sluggish and slow, tightly bound as it was in the pink dress made of oil and colour which so resembled the dress worn by the fat lady beyond her frame.
“Yes, yes, well done, Podmore,” the fat lady said lazily. She snapped her fingers, and the house elf who had been fanning her with a rich and exotically decorated fan scuttled forward. “Go and find the children, and some treats for us, Doily,” she commanded. The elf squeaked something and crept backwards and out of sight.
“Well done,” the artist snorted. “This is a masterpiece, madam, that you should be honoured to have inspired!”
She watched as the fat lady sniffed disdainfully, fanning herself a little with a large, flabby hand. “Then you might just as well finish the thing, Podmore, since I am paying you such a pretty galleon to complete it,” she informed him.
The artist grumbled to himself, but his eyes shone with pride as he turned back towards her – towards her, the portrait of the Fat Lady, who had been born of canvas and paint and who watched the scene with wide, childlike eyes from behind a large gilded frame.
“You are a beautiful thing,” he informed her, and though she did not have a name and was but an infant mind thrust upon the form of a woman she knew intrinsically that the artist did not mean that she, for herself, was beautiful, but that he was praising his own skills of creation, like the Maker of all praising himself on a job well done.
She looked up as the house elf ushers in two plump children with pouting mouths and round rosy cheeks framed by tightly wound curls. They sat at their mother’s feet and clapped with delight when a tray was brought with cakes and jellies and all sorts of rich, delicious things. She watched jealously as they stuffed their little mouths, chattering with excitement around the mouthfuls of cream and dust as they stared up at her.
“It is a most beautiful likeness, Mamma,” one of the children cried. The speaker was the prettier and rounder of the two, her eyes shrewd and bright as they gleamed up at her, that is, she who was upon the canvas. “Look how she moves, look at her eyes, as if she were truly a second Mamma!” She laughed gleefully, a most selfish and wondrous sound.
“Do not speak with your mouth full and splutter so, Zizi,” the mother chided, brushing crumbs off her own large chest where they fell to the ground in a light brown rain.
The children watched, fascinated, as the artist refined the pink blush on her cheeks, the shading around the edges of her voluptuous arms, the delicate folds of the magnificent gown. She relentlessly gazed at the witch and her children, fascinated by them and their idle chatter. The elder daughter, with the unfortunate nickname of Zizi, was to have a new gown for the autumn ball; the smaller one, who sucked her thumb and spat it out whenever she senses that something was unfairly distributed, was the smallest of the family and a sort of pet to all of them. She learned that there are other children: one, a daughter who was already married to a Muggle member of the lower gentry and who now presides over a rich country household, and two sons, one of whom worked as a barrister in London and the other who was with the queen’s army. This second son was the mother’s pride and joy, and she spoke of how handsome and clever he was, what a perfect gentleman he had grown up to be. Podmore, the artist, pricked his ears at this, thinking that there might be a second portrait commissioned if the mother was as fond of her children as she seemed to be.
That night, Podmore finished his day’s work and was escorted from the house by a footman, who minded that he did not get his greasy commoner’s hands close to any of the silverware. She was left alone in the parlor as the children and mother ushered off to dinner, and the canvas that was her home draped over with a large cloth. All was dark inside her portrait.
She took the chance to look about. Inside her frame was a comfortable sitting room, draped with fine cloths and carpets, though the finery on the side facing the world beyond the frame was much more detailed and ornate than that which was invisible to those beyond. She wondered what could be beyond the room, and maneuvered her unsteady body around the various chaises and doily-covered tables far too small to hold more than a teacup or two.
From the side of the room there stood the most splendid prize of all: in a beautifully inlaid glass cabinet there stood a golden goblet, a cup with two thin handles. She moved a little closer: the cup was decorated with a beautiful design of a badger upon it, with inscribed words in a strange language which she could not decipher. It was placed as such that any viewer examining the portrait would be able to catch a glimpse of the cup. She had noticed the same cup, only in its true form, on display in the fine cabinet in the fat lady’s sitting room.
The door leading beyond the room refused to open, and the heavy purple curtains shrouding the windows did not part no matter how she tugged at them. From the ceiling, the glimmering silver chandelier seemed to shutter from a breeze which she might never feel on her skin. Worst, she thought hear voices coming from the walls, the walls which she could not venture through nor penetrate, frightening, mysterious voices, yet she knew there was nobody there, as the family had gone to dinner and surely they were ghosts who spoke now within the walls.
It was dark and silent, there, and the loneliness and fear set in, and as the dark from beyond the cloth covering her canvas began to rise she glanced round her in fear. The shapes of the chaise and sofa began to look like awakening beasts, unsheathing their claws. The shadows of the corners of the room were ghastly specters whose eyes glinted scarlet in the dark, hands outstretched and greedy mouths exposing rotting teeth. And then there is the chandelier, so fine and delicate by day, which in the night seemed to swing from the breath of an invisible being, malice making the air inside her portrait thick and difficult to breathe.
She fought to maintain control, to keep the panic from seizing control of her heart and squeezing her reason from her head. From the corner of her eye, darkness seemed to shift from the corner of the room. She forced herself to look, and emitted a small scream, for there was a man who stepped from the wood paneling of the walls, who shifted the tapestry of a unicorn and maiden to step into her room, and she clutched her hand to her heart in fear.
“Are you quite alright, my dear?” the man asked, as calmly and coolly as if he has not just given her a great fright. “I must say, you look quite pale. Allow me.” And the stranger ushered her into perching on one of the plush sofas. She gaped at him as her bottom sunk into the thick pillows. With a smooth gesture the man reached into his sleeve and drew out a long, thin bit of wood. He then proceeded, with a graceful flick, to bring the candles upon the chandelier and the few dolled about the room into bearing bright flames. Instantly, the creatures lurking in the folds of cloth faded into furniture again; the specters became innocent and empty shadows once more.
“Thank you,” she said weakly. “I do wish I had some tea to offer you, sir.” This seemed the right thing to do, she had deemed from watching the family for all the day.
“My dear lady, there is no need!” the man chortled, seating himself a respectable distance from her. “I am most sorry to have frightened you: my name is Captain Jeremiah Smith, and I have been watching your progress with great interest. I live in the portrait across this drawing room, you see, and I believe that once your portrait has been completed we shall hang side by side in the dining room for all guests to feast their eyes upon.”
“Indeed, and why should we be of such interest?” she asked politely, hemming in her curiosity.
Jeremiah laughed. “Why, for you are the mistress of the house, of course, and I the master! I have waited a long time for the proper artist to be found who might bring you to life!” And this seemed to bring a rush of emotion upon him, for he snatched up her fleshy hand and pressed his lips to it. She gasped, feeling that the situation was quite improper, but pleased nevertheless. “You are as beautiful as I thought you would be,” he said, releasing her hand with some reluctance.
She examined him. Jeremiah had perhaps been captured in his fiftieth year, with strong ginger whiskers and kind eyes which twinkled beneath a pair of bushy eyebrows. He wore a uniform befitting a man of his station, his chest decorated with several medallions and stripes. He was rather tall and slim, as if his entire body had been seized at each end and stretched, and there was a distinct smudge of dark matter upon his cheek, as if he had been caught sniffling about in the fireplace.
Jeremiah seemed to notice her gaze and laughed heartily, putting a long-fingered hand to his cheek. “Ah, you have take note of my blemish,” he said ruefully. “A blunder on behalf of the painter, I am afraid. He has since died, I have heard, and thus the Captain has trusted no other to touch up for fear of my mobility being injured. The same artist was commissioned for you, my darling, and thus since his death it has taken so very long for you to come to me.”
“Could the new painter not fix it?” she asked.
Jeremiah sighed, his back razor-straight and a little gust of air from his finely crafted lips caused his whiskers to tremble slightly. “I fear not, for we are most tentatively constructed portraits. Only the finest may be expected to show movement, much less speak, you see. A new artist might make a blunder, and ruin the entire composition. The face itself is particularly delicate; I have heard how eyes and mouths are the most difficult to get precisely right.” He held his thumb and index finger together and squinted at them in a gesture of just how precisely right his portrait was expected to be.
“Are there a great many other portraits among us, then?” she asked in a slightly wavering voice. He smiled at her, kindly and gentlemanly, and extended a hand.
“Put on your gloves and traveling hat, my dear Lady, and I shall show you rather than tell you the portraits of our great house.”
And on top of a finely engraved piano she found the calfskin gloves, which were soft and creamy against her ringed-embroidered fingers, and the large feathered hat which was very fine indeed. And she shyly hooked her plump arm through Jeremiah’s thin one, and with a polite incline of his head he led her behind the tapestry.
Immediately she found herself in a portrait from which three wraithlike-like, silvery women shimmered in a haze of light cloths draped over their naked bodies. They smiled rather distantly and waved, but the core concentration was on a handsome youth who lounged across a rock, head cocked to one side in blessed confidence. To the right of her was the drawing room she had seen from her own portrait, yet from a different perspective, as if the universe had shifted four feet in a clockwise direction.
“A contemporary portrayal of the Judgement of Paris,” Jeremiah explained, patting her hand where it tightened on his arm. “The Captain purchased it for a pretty galleon.” He pointed to the distant background of the scene, where a brilliant city glittered in the distance upon a hill of golden wheat. “Look, there is the brilliant lost city-state of Troy. But do not think to try and reach the city, for I am told that as you walk towards it the city seems farther and farther away, and the landscape remains the stagnant same. I should not advise it, indeed.”
“I had not thought of it,” the Lady, as she was to now be called, replied, but she glanced with some longing at the beautiful city and thought of the people who might dwell there. She wondered how it must be for the three young women and the beautiful boy, to gaze upon the city but never be able to reach it. Perhaps she was fortunate, in her way, to have the confines of her drawing room and not being able to see farther.
Jeremiah was kind and showed her around the other neighboring paintings. He explained to her how as portraits of the inhabitants of the household, they were gifted with specific talents and responsibilities. As portrayals of life, they were tasked with carrying on the legacy of that individual, making themselves useful and an ornate memorial for future generations: a sort of living monument, as it were. A wry smile danced upon Jeremiah’s lips as he told her this. A poet who lived long ago, he explained, claimed to memorialize his lover through ink and parchment, embodying the lover’s memory in poetry to defeat the curse of time and keep the lover’s beauty immortal. Jeremiah explained how the Captain and his wife had no beloved poet to commit their bodies through verse, so they were instead urged to pay an artist to immortalize them through paint and plaster instead.
“Perhaps this is for the best, for they put much higher stock with the beauty of the eye than the voice of verse,” he said seriously. This was the closest she would ever hear to him criticizing the flesh and blood individuals whose faces were mirrors of their own. Jeremiah’s nature was not to scold or to hate: he was made of sterner material than petty and cheap paints. He was cordial and kind, and perhaps it was indeed fate, for the Lady found herself falling quite perilously in love with him.
Jeremiah’s own painting was of the house itself; indeed, the only view the Lady ever got of the place. In the days, he stood in the frame with his hand upon his hip, often raising the other in a military salute when an officer or wizard of rank would pass by. The Captain had been highly decorated and had made a great fortune during the Napoleonic wars. Behind him was a large country estate with great pillars lining the stone driveway to a mighty house, where peacocks could be seen roaming in the distance.
The Lady thought how marvelous it must be, to live in a house such as that. The irony that she was indeed inside the house was not quite lost on her.
As the other portraits set themselves to slumbering against the edges of their emblazoned frames, Jeremiah took her again by the arm and showed her about. He taught her the knack in passing from one portrait to another, and warned her against certain routes: the large painting of Leander being pursued by a love-stricken Poseidon, for example, should be avoided at all costs unless she wished to have to fight her way through in her large skirts. Jeremiah explained that this unfortunate incident had once befallen him, and he had been forced to draw the attention of the lecherous sea god in order to tumble into the next painting, in which Saint George had paused in fighting the dragon, sword in one hand, wand in the other – how else could the well of life have possibly have worked in healing him? – to ask Jeremiah rather rudely what precisely he was doing in his portrait. The dragon had been quite helpful in helping him warm and dry his plumed hat, fortunately.
As the large clock in the drawing room chimed the witching hour, Jeremiah walked her back through the portrait of The Judgement of Paris and into her own frame, stopping to admire the badger-engraved cup as they arrived. He kissed her hand, his moustache tickling her fingers.
“It was truly lovely to have the honour of your escort tonight, my dear,” he said softly, his eyes warm. She barely noticed the smudge of black upon his cheek. “Now you must get some rest, for the painter shall be back tomorrow to work upon your frame. If you are frightened, think only that I shall be watching you and giving encouragement: you need only look and I shall smile kindly, and hopefully cheer you in this arduous time.” He let her hand slip from her fingers and stepped back with clear reluctance.
“I bid you a good night,” the Lady said softly. She noticed how Jeremiah did not turn his back on her, yet backed out until he was behind the tapestry. She thought how his eyes twinkled, of the rough touch of his hand upon her soft and doughy one.
A fine gentleman, indeed, she thought to herself, and, lying out daintily upon the large pink chaise, she tumbled into a comfortable sleep.
Welcome to my new short story, thank you for reading! This is the first of three chapters. I hope you enjoy, and if you have the time to leave your opinion it would be very lovely! The Judgement of Paris painting here was inspired by the Greek story alluded to in Homer's Iliad and the painting here is an imagined interpretation of the painting of the same name by Peter Paul Rubens. The story of Hero and Leander, mentioned in the story, is credited to Christopher Marlowe, and the idea of the painting in the story is of my own imagination. The title and the lines at the beginning of the poem are both from Sonnet 106 by William Shakespeare.
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