Author's Foreword: The authoress of this odd little piece would like to let it be known that she dedicates this story to the honorable Oscar Wilde, and would like to warn the reader that the following moral tale is not to be read during or after dinner, for the reader's own safety.
Author's Foreword: The authoress of this odd little piece would like to let it be known that she dedicates this story to the honorable Oscar Wilde, and would like to warn the reader that the following moral tale is not to be read during or after dinner, for the reader's own safety.
"If you will just turn your head a bit to the left, there's a lad." The painter's eyes gleamed with pleasure as he looked on his friend and soon-to-be subject, the young Lord Edmund. The sunshine in the garden would do even more to bring out the natural beauty of his flaxen hair and smooth complexion, and Garmund wondered why he had never thought of this spot for painting before. Now, he thought as he broke several eggs, mixing the pigment with the yolks and arranging his supplies in a rather lackadaisical manner, he would be able to duly repay his young friend for the great advancements he had been able to make in the guild.
The painter Garmund's revolutionary realism and style had set him apart from all other artisans in his class, and had earned him the fast endorsement of Edmund's father, the Earl of Mercia. This painting would be certain to be his most poignant ever. It would break away from his contemporaries' fixation on religious subject matter and turn to a reality that was, in his humble opinion, even more beautiful. It was to be of the next Earl, of young Edmund himself, a present for his nineteenth birthday.
Garmund knew well he couldn't have asked for a better commission. During the years they had known each other, the two, barely three years apart, had formed a fast friendship. Each duly admired the other, one for the beauty of his face and spirit, and the other for the beauty of his handiwork. Of course, Garmund mused, it was easy to admire on a fine day such as today…
By the time his reflections were finished, he had nearly completed the careful charcoal sketch. As he was adding the finer details - the fine lines of the eyes and nose, those charming lines of his smile - the artisan was startled by a sudden, uneasy chuckle from his subject, who had been staring thoughtfully into the distance.
"I really hope, my friend, that taking this commission hasn't offended or besmirched you in some way?" asked the young master thoughtfully. Garmund started a bit at being addressed, but then looked up from his handiwork in concern.
"Why, never, my young master. It is an honor and a tremendous joy to be commissioned to paint one such as you," he said, wondering what had made the youth think otherwise.
"Ah… good, then. I was afraid." The lord continued to stare into space, until some thought rankled him and he glanced upwards again. "And call me not 'young master' - what must you of our long friendship, to call me 'master' as though you were a common servant? I am Edmund, and I'll always be Edmund to you, Garmund."
Garmund smiled. "Certainly, Lord Edmund. Whatever you wish. But tell me, why were you afraid that I should be offended at taking the commission for your portrait?"
"It was… but I shouldn't say it. It was really nothing, nothing but kitchen wives' fancies, I suppose… although many people have been talking, and not all of them wives. They say that this is a low project for you to take on, that you should be properly insulted by receiving commission for such a - an idolatrous work. They say that you should simply have settled for painting me into a scene of Our Lord's from the Bible, as you've done before, and that this is a blasphemous, vain undertaking."
Garmund looked quite indignant at this, and he laid down his brush in amazement. "You're quite certain? Who may they be to judge what I choose to do in such a manner? I see no idolatry in painting a beauty that the Lord Himself has created. Who could look into your eyes and see blasphemy there?" Garmund smiled reassuringly at the young earl. "Be not afraid of idle words, Edmund, and by all means do not let them spoil your present. I assure you that I am deeply honored to have the duty of affixing your own face to canvas, and making it immortal for all of time."
Edmund smiled, flushing a little at the compliments, and said softly, "I do see your point, and forgive me for making mention of it, Garmund. Still, however… it does make one wonder whether this is a vain undertaking. Perhaps this is an idolatrous thing, perhaps to paint me is to take a bit of your reverence towards the Good God and commit your heart to the mundane. And it may well indeed be vain of me to look forward to seeing my immortality captured by that skilled brush of yours," Edmund said, only half-jestingly, and settled back. Garmund smiled vaguely, but did not reply. He was too deeply into his work.
It was well into the evening when the painter at last laid down his brush, eyes still fixed with feverish intensity on the painting. "That will do for today, I venture," he said quietly. "I may well have you come out tomorrow, and the next day as well. Do you wish to see it, or shall it be a surprise?"
"Your work is ever a surprise to me, and to all souls who chance to see it - I shall peek," said Lord Edmund, stretching and smiling at the artist, but Garmund was still deeply withdrawn, more so than his friend had ever seen him before. Edmund walked to the artist's side and gazed at the canvas, and there before him stood a truer replica of him than mirror ever gave. It was at once true to life and unearthly, a startling reproduction of spirit that seemed, in the evening light, to have a life and a purpose of its own. The sight of it, as promised, filled Edmund with wonder, and yet sent chills down his spine. The exuberant gleam of the eyes, the sunlight glinting off of the portrait's beautiful gold hair, was incredibly real and beautiful, nearly too real for the senses to bear.
"Garmund!" was all that he could say at first, and it was this cry that finally started the painter out of his reverie. Brought back to the real world, he glanced anxiously at his friend.
"Do… do you like it?" he asked timidly.
The young man shook his head in wonderment, an awestruck smile parting his lips. "It … it is wonderful… terrible and wonderful and shocking and absolutely beautiful, all at the same time! I can scarcely believe that I am the subject of such a thing… what an advent that is! Do I really appear thus to you?"
"No, my friend," Garmund laughed. "You appear far more amazing to me than anything my rough hands could create."
"But you must not say that!" Edmund laughed for a moment, then stared at Garmund in all seriousness. "It is your finest work, my friend. I am glad to have been the device which brought this about." The two friends smiled warmly at each other in the fading light, then Edmund laughed again. "But what type of host am I acting to the greatest artisan in Britain? You have painted all day, and are surely tired and hungry. Come sup with us tonight - that wonderful portrait of yours can surely wait until the morrow."
The young lord fidgeted in his chair uneasily, watching the sky change with the sunset from a thick, brooding gray to a mottled violet like that of a day-old bruise. The clear strip of red on the horizon which cast its glow over the quiet tableau was well into waning when Edmund finally spoke, timidly. "Garmund? It is getting late… oughtn't we go inside?"
The painter seemed not to have heard a word. His brush continued to work, without pause or care. Perhaps it was only Edmund's imagination, but it seemed to him that his friend's eyes had grown more distant than before, as though they had come unhinged from the world around them and were inhabiting a separate sphere of their own, the only members of which were Garmund and the portrait. It was a disturbing effect, and Edmund sprang to his feet, quite nearly possessed of an irrational terror of losing the painter forever to that strange world.
"Garmund!" The boy rushed forward and seized the artist's arm impulsively, and at last he saw the recognition in the painter's eyes, saw the strangeness diffuse and the otherworld go away, as Garmund laid down his brush and looked down at the young heir in surprise and slight consternation. Edmund sighed in relief. "My friend, it's getting too dark. You'll ruin your eyes if you keep on at painting."
"Oh…" Garmund blinked several times, as though striving to clear his head from some foreign impulse. "I… suppose you are right." He hesitated a little, and the fey cast remembered itself in his expression slightly. "But do you think that you might furnish me with candles, or lamps… illumination of some sort? I don't feel up to quitting at this point… I wish to continue unhindered." Edmund regarded the painter with awe and not a little of fear. Perhaps he had been wrong to suppose this an ordinary reverie, like those that had come before when the artisan grew deeply involved in his work.
"Do you not wish to eat tonight, then? You've been at this all day, since early in the morning, if I recall aright," said Edmund anxiously. Garmund did not meet his eyes.
"No… I can do without food. It is not important to me right now, anyhow. I believe I may release you from your sitting duties, as well, if I may. I have enough to finish on, and I wouldn't want to keep you up throughout the night."
Edmund nodded warily. "I shall tell the servants to set aside a special room for your studio, if you wish, and to have it well-lit for you, if that is what you wish, Garmund."
The painter nodded, murmuring his thanks, and went to take down the canvas and bring it inside. As his fingers touched it, it seemed to the young lord that his friend's dark brown eyes ignited suddenly like coals into pools of fire.
"Just think, Edmund!" the artist said, almost to himself. "This is my masterpiece… I feel that more with every passing day. What a thrill it is! It will be so amazing to have it completed… yet I wonder if I will ever be satisfied when it is truly done. I already cannot picture surrendering this portrait to anyone… and it will be such a letdown, as well as a relief, to set down my brush and know that my finest hour is here, that my creation has reached its zenith, and that there is nothing else for me to do." The painter bit his lip, trouble growing in his expression. Then he smiled at Edmund, and the fey look nearly passed out of his eyes entirely. "But what crude manners it is of me to prattle on thus to an heir! I hope you will never feel, young lord, the way that I feel tonight."
Edmund smiled back, and decided to keep his worries to himself. The canvas and brushes were transported inside, and shortly afterward, Garmund was standing within a room bathed in candlelight near the top of the castle, and playing out a symphony in color upon the deaf canvas that lasted well throughout the night.
For days, weeks, and finally months upon end the painter labored over the portrait of Lord Edmund that was to be his finest work. Abstaining from food or drink, sleeping only occasionally…
When does he sleep, really?Edmund wondered.Every time I go in there, it's always the same. He's always awake, always painting. The damned portrait is always wet, and every time I go in he's thinner and weaker. He'll become a wretched skeleton, in the end… the servants won't recognize him, they'll throw him into the street with the peasants. And all for what? For a birthday portrait! What a farce…
The young earl-to-be leaned against the cold stone wall, allowing his hands to clench into fists. How had he allowed this to happen? How had his best friend been taken away from him by pigments upon canvas? How had it happened? And, more pressing … what was there to be done about it?
It'll be my birthday soon. My birthday… he's commissioned, and so bound, to give up the portrait then. And then he'll have to move on to something else. Edmund didn't want to think of what would happen if, as the artist himself had said, he should refuse to give up the portrait. Then he really would be thrown into the streets, or perhaps, even worse, be charged with theft. Besides, if he keeps going over what he's already painted in this manner, it'll take him several years to finish anyhow. And he can't keep painting if he starves before my birthday…
So waiting was risky, if not altogether out of the question, Edmund thought bitterly. He couldn't afford to wait any longer. He needed action - decisive action - but what?
Burn the portrait. Imagine what would happen if he were caught! And besides, the portrait would still have to be finished in time for Edmund's birthday. To burn the portrait wasn't the same as burning the deal which had sealed its creation.
If he could only reason with Garmund… but Edmund knew from experience that that was futile. Garmund had no words for anyone now. He had retreated entirely into the world of brush and canvas, of color and charcoal. There would be no reasoning with him as long as the portrait remained to be finished.
Edmund rubbed his eyes wearily and strained his ears for tidings from the room behind the wall. The only sure path that he could think of was to destroy the portrait somehow, and have Garmund create a new one. Perhaps he wouldn't be caught, and perhaps Garmund's new portrait would be less absorbing than this one. Perhaps the new portrait would have the decency to let its painter do something more than slave over it for weeks upon end. It was quite a lot to hope for even without the question of how to lure Garmund away from the portrait for any length of time, but it was the only path Edmund could decide on with any surety.
Edmund pressed himself against the wall harder, heart pounding. Now that he had made his mind up to his plan, he could only decide to carry it out immediately, especially as he couldn't hear a single sound from the room behind him, and suddenly the danger became painfully apparent. Still the silence persisted. Nothing for it, Edmund thought, suddenly feeling bold, and he pushed open the door, stepping inside.
The atmosphere in the studio was close with the aroma of burning candle fat and the acrid pigments which Garmund had mixed so faithfully all these weeks. The stifling heat and light made Edmund hesitate to get his bearings, but he started forward when he saw that Garmund had abandoned the easel in the center of the room, and, furthermore, that the painter was nowhere to be found. He entertained the possibility of going back downstairs to station a newer servant at the door, perhaps to bribe him to say that he had never seen Garmund before and to chase him away from the room, but there was no guarantee of when the painter would be back. It was now or never.
Edmund advanced steadily on his inanimate foe, glancing about for weapons. At the base of the canvas, amidst several assorted brushes in various states of disarray, he spied a long, thin knife which he had seen Garmund use before to mix and apply paints to the canvas. He hefted the dagger, checking the point. It was sharp - sharp enough to suit his purposes. The young lord turned his gaze to meet his rival's, and was surprised when a gasp came out of his own mouth in response.
The portrait was more beautiful than ever - or was it only his imagination, from not having seen it for so long? Regardless, its soft, green-eyed gaze nearly made Edmund's heart stop. There was something of yearning and hope in its eyes, a sylvan joy that seemed far too beautiful and pure to ever be of this world. How had Garmund seen this in Edmund, and how had he captured it in canvas? Or perhaps he had never seen it in Edmund. Perhaps that expression of feeling had merely come from the painter himself. Edmund could feel his mouth going soft in wonder and joy, and tried to steel himself as best he could. It was near impossible to stab a face like that. He could scarce believe he possessed the mirror image of that expression.
Garmund, thought the boy, and then, fiercely, this… is all wrong. Something so beautiful is a credit to the world, surely, but to have this beauty at the cost of your life? Never! Better this portrait had a Satanic expression, for I can well believe the old ladies at court now when they told me it was blasphemy! It has cost you your livelihood, if not your soul - what kind of price is this to pay for empty beauty?
In a flash, Edmund realized how much this portrait had cost him, and was dazzled by his own jealousy. Faced with its twin, his comely face warped into the antithesis of the portrait's sweet expression, and, hatred-laden, the canvas knife tore deep into the kindly face of his painted double, rending eyes, nose, smooth cheek, sunlit hair. Edmund slashed the canvas again and again, until the portrait was nothing but hanging colored strips from a decrepit easel, and at last he dropped the knife and sank to his knees before the desecration, exhausted with the impotent passion of rage still fuming within him. His limbs twitched and jerked beneath him, as though every nerve in his body was vibrating to some strange impulse running through the floor.
With a strange perception of some awareness nearby, the boy's eyes darted to the door, the sensitivity of his nerves insisting that something important lay behind it. They were not far off. Garmund pushed the door open as Edmund watched wearily from the floor, frozen in horror, and the painter stopped short as his disbelieving, yet-entranced eyes took in the scene of violence.
Edmund knew as surely as the terror that was rising in him that Garmund was struck speechless at this moment in time, and so it was up to him to fill the empty void of words occupying this moment of fate. He climbed to his feet, cleared his throat, uncertain of where he should begin - conscious of his own horribly apparent guilt as surely as though the blood of his portraited self was still dripping from his own hands.
"Garmund," he started weakly, "Please… don't look like that. Please understand. It was I who stabbed your portrait - well, who else? I am the obvious choice… Oh, but it's not for any random reason. Please, listen to me! I need you to listen…" Edmund was quailing, and he knew it, beneath the horrible stare of the painter, accusing him remorselessly of betrayal, betrayal, betrayal. "I… didn't just do this on a whim. Garmund… it was for you. It was because I don't know what you've become…" his eyes lit suddenly with a desperate plea, his voice becoming stronger. "And whatever it is, I don't like it…"
"Garmund, you've been our family's friend and consultant for years. You've been my friend for forever… I thought that this portrait would only make the tie between us stronger, but I suppose I was wrong! As soon as I began to sit for it, I noticed the change in you… you became a different person while the portrait was around, while the brush was in your hand. I thought it was just your devotion to your work, but now… now it's gone too far. You don't care for yourself anymore… you've starved yourself, gone to any lengths, just for that portrait's stare. You don't care for yourself anymore… I don't even think you care for me anymore." The young man's voice grew black with despair, but he sensed a change in the painter. "For all these months, I've waited, waited for you to come to your senses. I couldn't sit by any longer. I had to do something. I can't lose you to a picture, Garmund - you're worth more to me than any portrait that man or God ever created. Can't you see that?"
Edmund raised his eyes to the painter as he uttered those last words, and was shocked to see the dark stain of shame upon his friend's face. "I…" Garmund began in a voice rather rusty with disuse, then cleared his throat and started again, "I'm… sorry, Lord Edmund. I suppose I forgot myself… I suppose my priorities have been warped all this while. I really thought… no, never mind about that. I didn't think. I wanted the portrait to be finished more than anything in the world. Now that it's gone, though, I can't think why. I…"
Garmund trailed off. Words were failing him. He kept looking from the canvas to the young lord, to the shredded canvas again. A strange expression came into his eyes. It seemed that he discovered again the betrayal, then remembered again the heartfelt arguments of Lord Edmund, then saw again the portrait, his life's culmination, slashed and brutally vandalized before his eyes… Breaking off thought, he covered his face with his hand, sinking against the wall. Edmund, in worry, rose to comfort him, but Garmund stayed him with a motion. "Back! I don't understand myself yet. I don't … understand what I feel, or what I should do…" Again and again he reviewed the evidence, the scene, the guilt. Obsession and humanity warred and clashed again and again as the painter leaned against the mortar and stone, rendered impotent by indecision.
Edmund… my portrait… my masterpiece… That word, 'masterpiece,' began to assert itself over the softer feelings of friendship that had clouded his mind. A demented logic asserted its presence over the soft mist of kind emotions that had swayed him from his choice. My masterpiece. It is gone. It is gone… he has destroyed it… for my sake? What is my sake but that to which I gave my life? I would have died for that portrait… Softly at first, and then louder, the manic pulse of his heart began, and his thoughts retraced themselves as silently as spiders. Gone. Destroyed. Nothing. For nothing…
Edmund saw the fey mood envelop his friend again as surely as though it were a strangling shadow upon Garmund's frail form. And his heart broke inside him as he realized, quite suddenly, that there was nothing more he could do. There was only one thing more left to him to do, that might, possibly, impress upon Garmund how he had meant this action to be perceived, that might stop that dark shadow from gaining hold.
Edmund picked up the shredded canvas from the easel and threw it into the fireplace with a motion of ultimate finality.
For better or for worse, his statement had been made, and he stood watching the flames devour in turn the creature which had devoured the soul of his artisan friend. His eyes were too full of flames to see Garmund, to behold the horrified fire in his eyes, or the sudden resolution; too full of flames to see the painter darting forward for the dagger Edmund had dropped, or to see it raised to his unseeing back. As the canvas knife pierced his skin again and again, Edmund fell forward limply, blinking in surprise at how much it really hurt. Still, he filled his dimming eyes with the flames. He did not want to see Garmund, holding the knife which had killed him. He did not want to believe that it was truly his friend standing over him, watching as Edmund gasped his final breath, then leaving him to lie there on the floor, with unseeing eyes still watching the flames in silent disbelief.
Garmund stood over the body of Edmund for full on half an hour, not weeping, nor laughing, nor moving. At last, he moved towards the easel. He readied his palette and lifted a fresh canvas to the surface. And, finally, he lifted his brush to begin.
In the Month of September, 22nd day of the Year of Our Lord 1133
I must include with the following manuscript a warning, to hazard any brother who thinks to look upon these things unprepared. There are horrors within this tale that are better off unknown to those who would fain remain true Men of God. However, the elder brothers have advised me of the wisdom of transcribing this most morbid and unusual case, so that I feel myself obligated to do so. It mayhap be that there is a lesson to be learned in all this horror; though, after having witnessed these events myself, I confess I find myself quite unconvinced of a theme within. May God make clear the meaning of this senseless tragedy which has befallen our good Earl of Mercia.
Naught but a fortnight ago, our good Earl himself came to the doors of our monastery, and begged us to help in relieving a rather famous artisan who had been residing in his manor of some possession or other. The Earl claimed that he had shut himself up within the confines of a room near the top of the Earl's manor, and furthermore it seemed that the Earl's son, a most upright young boy, by all accounts, God rest his soul, had disappeared. The Earl was near his wit's end - he had employed his knights and all the militias that the countryside could muster, but yet no solution would unbar the door of the artist's studio, or tell him what had become of his young heir. And so I and a number of my brothers came to assist him in whichever way we could, God willing.
We had surrounded the door in short order, but our entreaties for the artist to come forth met with silence, as we had expected. Fortunately, Brother Ignatius is skilled with locks, and he managed to dismantle the lock upon the door and allow us entrance inside. I, in my foolhardiness, was the first to go in. God warrant that none of us had ever seen a sight so horrid in all our lives - may we never see a sight like it again!
I had stepped inside the door, and the first thing that I saw was the painter in question, working away at his art, a rather remarkably done portrait of a young man of fair facial features, whom we all at once recognized upon study as the young Earl himself. The young man in the picture was wearing a rather unusually colored livery of red so dark it was nearly brown, or brown so dark it was nearly red - one of the two. It caught my eye immediately, but once my gaze was allowed to wander, it at once discovered a sight which I shudder to commit to paper and memory.
My brethren, lying next to the artist upon the floor was a young man, dead for some time, and horribly mutilated. His blood stained the tiles of the floor and, furthermore, the hands of the painter. He - but I shudder to write it, and grow nauseous as I was at the time! - his chest had been torn open, indeed his entire torso, down to the entrails, had been rived and put into the most disgraceful and disgusting disarray. The internal organs were lying about, some on the torso and some on the floor, and - this is the most hard to believe - bits were taken out of them, a fact which we did not realize until later.
At the sight of it, I am not ashamed to admit before God, I was perfectly sick. Once I had done, I assisted the other brothers in leading away the painter, who, once we pried the brush from his fingers and subdued him with the assistance of the strongest among us, came quite quietly, only protesting that he wanted his picture, in a rather pathetic tone. It did not seem possible that that plaintive voice could belong to so horrible a slaughterer. We could only conclude that he was indeed possessed by demons, and so we imprisoned him within a quiet and well-looked-after cell in the monastery and came back to further investigate the strange tableau of which he had been such a hellish part.
The portrait which the artist had been painting at the time of his arrest was of tantamount interest to us all, and we all gathered around it as one when we came back, if only to forget the dreadful corpse of that poor young man which we found with it, which had already been taken away. In particular, the shade of the livery which I have already remarked upon attracted all of our attention most peculiarly. It was Brother Claude who realized what it was at last. The stain upon the floor, he realized, was exactly the same hue. The artisan had painted a portrait of the dead young man, in the young man's very own blood. The rest of the hues, we soon deduced with sinking horror in our hearts, were the boy's organs. Mixed with other substances, as we brethren do so often, they made an ideal form of pigment, it seems.
Ah! To write it makes me wish for the mercy of a faint! But I must spare myself, for strangest and most tragic of all in this senseless drama is the horrible news I received a few evenings after the incident.
We had intended to at least keep that poor possessed man in our cell until the justice of the town could decree him guilty of the murder, which seemed beyond doubt. However, I had scarce settled down for the evening's work when Brother Ignatius came to my cell and told me to come quickly - that something had happened.
And something had indeed happened. I entered the artist's cell and found him just as Ignatius had, lying within a pool of his own blood. And upon the wall, affixed in such a manner that we know not whether it will ever come out, he had painted a picture of the same young man which he had murdered. It was done entirely in the medium of his own blood.
Ah, what a horrid tale! I know not why the elder brothers wanted it to be told, or its sorrow made the burden of any others to bear. Perhaps they intended to provide me solace by ordering me to do so… and I suppose they are right, as I am a little calmer, although none less sad. The Earl is heartbroken. He was nearly driven mad, too, by the news of his son's gruesome death, but he managed to control himself; and so shall I.
Furthermore, I suppose the elders were right about the message behind this series of unfortunate events. Here was a genius of a man, a man who had neared the zenith of his career, a man who, in many ways, had everything. But, at the very end, he fell short. Why? I do not believe it is because of fate, though it may be a folly to think so.
It is really his devotion that doomed him in the end. He had amazing social ties, a good friendship with the young boy whom he killed, a remarkable talent for his craft. But he devoted everything, in the end risked everything, for this single picture. And now it seems foolish to me, to devote one's life and one's self to anything, except God; and perhaps even He Who is Most High will look down with perplexity on this measure of devotion. Truly, as the heathen mystics have written, the wellsprings of humanity in all their walks of life are best, perhaps only, preserved through moderation. To live otherwise may not be a mode of living at all.