Bewildering Stories

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The Lady’s Painting

part 1

by Rick Combs

John Frank laid his paintbrush down amidst the multitude of colors swirling about his palette. He smiled to himself and reached up to pull the stiff canvas over the easel top to protect his latest work, careful to keep the canvas on the support bars so as not to damage the fresh paint.

“You can relax now,” he said, “I think we’ve done enough for today.”

The young lady on the couch laid down her book and straightened out her body. The seemingly hours of reclining on the couch, albeit not that uncomfortable, did cause her muscles to tighten. The Lady Jessica slowly rose from the couch and, like a cat awakening from a nap, slowly and gracefully stretched out the kinks from her back and long slender legs.

Lady Jessica’s husband, the Duke of Trendor, had commissioned John to paint a portrait of his young bride. The Duke himself was well past forty and had finally married the twenty-eight year old daughter of his main political adversary last year. The surprise at the announcement of the nuptials had been on everyone lips. Some were happy at the prospect of a possible heir. Others were upset that the reign might continue for a long time. All did not necessarily love the Duke; he was feared more than anything else.

While the Duke was a short, dark-haired man capable of meting out justice and dealing with the multitude of problems running a fiefdom, Jessica seemed the exact opposite. Tall and slender, her golden hair glistened in the sunlight wafting in from the windows of John’s workroom. The Duke was known for loud outbursts while holding court; he wouldn’t tolerate incompetence. Jessica had not been known to have ever raised her voice in anger, always having a kind word for everyone she met. Where the Duke was feared, all loved Jessica.

Everyone within the realm thought it was a marriage of convenience. John fervently hoped it was true. Today’s sitting was the third in as many weeks. Since taking on the commission, John had fallen deeply in love with the Lady Jessica. John tended to be more on the quiet side, especially while painting. But when she wasn’t reading, she had engaged him in conversation and he found that he actually liked talking to her. Their conversations ranged over the entire gauntlet of subjects, from academia to favorite recipes. The more he learned about her and her life, both before and after the marriage, the more he knew he loved her.

“Can I see what you’ve done so far?” she asked.

“No, milady, for that would spoil the magic and the painting would be less than your husband is paying.” John playfully chided.

“Ah, Master Painter, surely you jest! What magic could possibly be involved with paints and canvas other than the magic of your own hand and eye?” Jessica jibed back as she worked a particularly hard knot in her back. “Surely, my husband will get exactly what he paid for!”

“No, the magic is in the air and I just direct it into my paints and then unto the canvas,” he replied as he further straightened out the cover over the painting, surreptitiously watching her stretch from the corner of his eye. “Would you care for some refreshment Lady Jessica? I believe I have a nice bottle of wine here.”

“Thank you John, but I have my duties to perform. If you would only be so kind as to hand me my wrap, I must be off.”

John walked over to his workbench and the coat tree standing next to it for her cloak. He held the cloak up for her to slip into. As she slid her arms into the sleeves, his fingers felt the silky caress of her skin, sending a shock of desire coursing up his arms and into his heart.

“Until next week then, My Lady,” he said as she fastened the cloak around her shoulders with the golden broach.

“How much longer before you’re done,” she asked as she walked towards the door. “Laying on that couch so long becomes boring after awhile. I know I don’t need to keep the exact pose your painting, but not being able to do anything but read is taking its toll on my sanity!” Lady Jessica laughed.

“It takes as long as it takes and I know it’s boring, but I do want to give your husband his money’s worth.”

“Well, till next week then, Master Painter. Till next week.” And with those final words, she once again left him with only his own mundane life behind.

John looked around his workroom with its mottled collection of paints and brushes and stretched canvases. “Why would anyone want to stay here in such a run-down place,” he thought. He looked around the workroom. Coming in from the door, the first thing anyone saw was his workbench, full of half-used containers of paint and brushes haphazardly laying around, (not his good brushes of course, just the older, unusable ones). The top of the workbench was a kaleidoscope of colors that had dripped and ran together to form an incomplete painting on their own. A painting that John liked to think represented his life and the chaos he felt he was living.

To the left was the couch. Old and becoming threadbare, it was the medium he used to capture the essence of his subjects. When a person came to be painted, he asked them to sit and relax. Then he would just watch them. Some would become nervous from being the center of his rapt attention; others would just sit and look around the workroom. Eventually, they would relax and he would see the person within the person. While other painters would sketch different attributes of their subjects before deciding on one that complimented the subject, John preferred watching. The years of patient apprenticeship he had spent in learning his craft had helped him develop his memory. Once he saw the pose, the essence of the person, he never forgot it. Then, and only then, he’d pick up his brush and commence the portrait.

After capturing the inner person, he didn’t really need them to remain -- he actually worked better totally alone. But Lady Jessica was different. He used the excuse of giving her husband ‘his money’s worth’ to have her sit with him. With her in the room, he felt like he could paint forever.

The rest of the rooms’ items were uniformly nondescript; an old table where he took his infrequent meals, a chair and a closet for his clothes. Storage for the things in life everyone seemed to collect but never actually used and his books. John loved to read and had collected many stories that he would re-read whenever business was slow.

He picked up a book now and sat down to read. But views of Lady Jessica swam before his eyes, blurring the words to the point that he couldn’t read. After re-reading the same passage three times, he threw the book down on the table in disgust. He quickly walked to the coat tree and, taking his cloak, slammed out of the workroom. Standing on the street, he looked around and decided to walk towards the seedier parts of the town. Perhaps a drink would help him clear his mind of Jessica. Turning to his right, he set off with a brisk pace. He didn’t notice any of the townsfolk as he made his way towards one of the several pubs in the area. “Maybe Tomas will be out tonight,” he thought as he walked. “He’s always good for a laugh. Anything to clear my mind.”

After a short walk, John reached the doorway of the Stag’s Head Inn. The raucous noise coming from inside told him that the proprietor, Old Luke Kimbel, was doing a bang-up business tonight. Old Luke, as everyone called him, was only in his early thirties. He had inherited that name once his father, The Old Luke, had passed from this earth.

“John! John! Come on over and have a drink,” he heard as he entered the establishment. Looking towards the bar area, he saw Old Luke wildly gesturing with his empty hand while holding a draught of beer in the other.

“Old Luke, appears that business has picked up of late,” John stated as he took the proffered beer. “Have you finally fired that old cook and hired someone who knows what he’s doing?”

“Nah, Johnny,” Old Luke laughed. “This is just some of the visitors coming up from the docks to experience the finer parts of town!”

“Finer parts. I see,” John said while glancing around at the rough-hewn interior of the inn with a grin on his face. “So, I take it they got lost then?”

“Hah! You are such a clown at times! So, is it food you’re looking for tonight my friend?” Old Luke yelled as he pounded John’s shoulder. “Or should I see if there’s someone free for you tonight?”

“Just food, Old Luke. I think I’ll grab a seat in a corner somewhere if you don’t mind.”

“Sure, suit yourself. I’ll send one of the boys out with a platter for you.” Old Luke moved down the bar and stuck his head inside the doorway to the kitchen area. He yelled something incoherent and then went on to draw more beer for another patron. John took his glass and slowly ambled through the crowd towards the back, searching for a, if not nicer, at least quieter spot to sit and reflect on his feelings about Jessica. Along the far wall, he spied an empty table and sat down on the wooden bench.

As he sat there waiting for his food, John watched the other patrons. John was always studying his fellow humans, looking for that moment of truth to appear. John’s paintings were well known for his ability to capture the truest aspect of his subject. He had learned this by endless hours of patiently watching.

In one corner of the bar, the loudest group was congregating about one man who seemed to be telling humorous stories from the sudden random sounds of laughter. At the table nearest the door were four men intently concentrating on the food in front of them. “Dockhands,” John thought, observing the single-minded manner they used to attack the food. Scattered around the main room several smaller groups were drinking, talking, eating -- all of the normal activities of content and happy souls.

One of the boys Old Luke hired brought John a platter of food. John saw mutton, a small wedge of cheese and some bread heaped upon the platter. The food might not be fancy, but it was certainly filling and Old Luke probably had the best beer in the area. Digging into the food, John lowered his head and forgot about the rest of the inn’s patrons. He hadn’t realized just how hungry he was until he started eating.

After finishing all of the mutton, John leaned back against the wall and started on the cheese and the last remnants of the bread. He noticed that the crowd had gotten quieter since he had started eating. “Ah, the loud group at the bar has left,” John thought. “They must’ve decided to try another establishment.” The few remaining clumps of people were quietly discussing whatever subjects made up the basis of their lives.

Just as he was finishing the bread and thinking about walking home, he saw his friend Tomas enter through the massive wooden door. “Tomas!” John called. “Grab a drink and join me.” Tomas waved to acknowledge him and ordered a beer from Old Luke. After several words with Old Luke, evidently a joke from the loud laughter Old Luke released, Tomas aimed towards John’s table.

“Well, I was starting to wonder if you were going to show up tonight,” Tomas said after taking a deep pull on the beer. “Haven’t seen you around for awhile.”

“I’ve been busy. I’ve got another commission,” John replied as he looked at his friend. Tomas was younger than John, but not by many years. The perpetual smile on his face was the most noticeable feature on Tomas’ face. Everything in the world was a joke to him, and he obviously enjoyed the joke. His brownish hair was pulled back behind his head. Tomas worked for his father as a smithy and needed to keep his hair from catching fire from the furnace. The years of working with his father had given him strength in his arms, back and legs that few in the town were willing to test. But John knew the real Tomas. Inside, he was gentle as a lamb, especially to small children.

“So, are you and Darla ever going to tie the knot?” John asked. He knew the answer would be ‘Not yet’, but this question had become a standard greeting between the two young men. Tomas and Darla would eventually marry, but only after they had saved enough to setup his own shop. Tomas always said that a man should not marry until he could support himself and a wife.

“Soon,” Tomas replied with a twinkle in his eye. “Business has been very good lately and I’ve almost saved enough to buy that old house and shop down by the docks.”

“Well, I guess congratulations are in order then!” John said with a grin as he raised his glass in a toast.

“Thanks, John. So, what about you? When are you ever going to finally settle down? Still can’t find the right one yet?”

John didn’t answer. Instead he just looked at the remainder of his beer. Suddenly, he brought the glass up and gulped down the rest of the beer.

“Ah!” Tomas grinned, “So, there is someone you’re finally interested in! It’s about time. So, tell your friend Tomas all of the gory details!”

“She’s the most beautiful lady I’ve ever had the privilege of looking at,” John said morosely. “But, she’s already taken and there nothing I can do about it.”

Tomas watched his friend and saw the pain sweep across his face. “She must really be a beauty to cause you to act like this,” he softly said. “Have you told her how you feel?”

“No, I can’t. We talk a lot, but I can’t say anything about how I feel.” John waved his empty glass at Old Luke, ordering another round.

Tomas sat there and watched his friend. They had known each other for most of their lives. John was always the quiet, soft-spoken one and he was the friendly out-going one of the pair. Together, they had each helped the other; true friends.

“John, I hate to see you like this.”

“And I hate being like this. But Tomas, I don’t know what to do. I’m painting her portrait now, but I’m almost finished. I can’t think about not seeing her again.”

Tomas looked at his friend as a frown suddenly appearing on his face. “John, never say that again to anyone else. I know, everyone knows, whom you’re painting now. She’s the Duke’s wife, man!”

“I know Tomas, I know. But there’s nothing I can do about it,” John whispered. “She’s all I can think about.”

Tomas sat there and thought about the problem. It occurred to him that there was only one solution to this problem, Edgar. If anyone could help his friend, Edgar was the one.

“You need to see Edgar,” he said.

John jerked up his head and looked at his friend. “Are you crazy? No one goes around Edgar any more since that dockhand vanished.”

A few years ago, Edgar had been a common sight in the town. One night, a dockhand had gotten drunk and had started a fight with Edgar, laughing at his malformed leg. Edgar left the pub, followed shortly by the dockhand who wouldn’t let anyone just walk away from him. The dockhand was never found. His wife claimed that Edgar had used some sort of magic to banish her husband and leaving her to raise the kids the best way she could. Edgar rarely came back into town since then because of all of the looks and gossip. A lot of the townsfolk thought he did dabble in the blacker arts.

“Yeah, I know the talk and the reasons for everyone avoiding him. But, if anyone can help you, it would be Edgar.”

John quickly finished off his second beer and rose from the table. “Thanks for caring Tomas. And I will be careful about talking to anyone about her, but your suggestion to see Edgar just isn’t going to happen. You know I don’t believe all of this gossip about magic.”

“Nor do I John. But Edgar is a smart man; lots smarter than most people think he is. Think about it. He might be able to help. And be careful walking home,” Tomas said as he raised his glass in a departing salute to his friend.

John made his way out of the inn and turned towards his home. The walk back seemed so much longer than earlier this evening. The sky was darkening with the setting sun as it threw up an amazing array of reds and yellows as it passed below the horizon. The twilight darkness settled around John like a comfortable blanket as he continued his lonely way home.

“Edgar,” he thought. “Who but Tomas would ever think of Edgar?” While John didn’t believe in magic, he was smart enough to realize there were unexplainable things that happened in the world. Edgar was just one of those unexplainable factors that made up John’s world.

* * *

A few days later, John was awaked by a knock on his door. Pulling himself up off his couch, John stumbled to the door. He opened the door ready to yell at whomever had disturbed his sleep. “Didn’t they know that honest folk were resting to prepare for the coming day’s work?” he thought. Flinging out the door, John stood there in disbelief, his mouth hanging open in preparation of the curse that had suddenly died within his throat. There before him was Edgar; leaning upon the stick he used to help him walk.

“Well, young John, are you just going to stand there, or are you going to ask me in?” Edgar said with a slight smile. “It’s a bit nippy out here on the stoop.”

“Uh, yeah, sure, come on in,” John stuttered as he moved to the side to allow the man access to his room. “Uh, what can I do for you Edgar?”

“Not what you can do for me but the other way around, I suspect,” Edgar stated as he hobbled to the couch and sat down with a groan. “Your friend Tomas asked me to stop by and talk to you.”

Tomas! John should have known his friend wasn’t going to just let it go. “Did he say for what purpose?” John asked.

“Not too much, just than he thought you could use my sort of help. So, what’s the problem John?” Edgar asked.

John didn’t want to discuss the issue but something seemed to loosen within himself and soon he was telling Edgar everything that had happened with Jessica without mentioning her name. Edgar just sat on the couch and listened. As John talked, he examined the man before him. Edgar was short and his malformed leg made him seem smaller, the remnants of a childhood disease. His head was covered with a fine, wispy crown of gray white hair. The wrinkles on his face made him appear older than anyone else John knew. As John talked to him, Edgar’s eyes closed and John thought he was falling asleep.

“So, John, the whole problem,” Edgar said suddenly, which startled John, “is that you don’t know how to let this young lady know your true feelings. Right?”

John agreed that was the crux of it all. “I just want to spent the rest of my life with her,” John exclaimed.

Edgar opened his eyes and stared steadily at John. The gaze went on for a long time and John began to feel very uncomfortable under the intense gaze. “Sometimes, what we are wishing for isn’t really what we wanted in the long run,” Edgar observed. “Are you sure this is what you truly wish?”

“Yes! With all my heart!” John said. “I would do anything to be with her forever.”

“So. Well, I might be able to help you in this little matter. But John, you must follow my directions exactly, no changes and no questions.” Edgar looked at John with an intensity that almost frightened the life out of John.

John whispered, “What do I need to do?”

To be continued...

Copyright © 2003 by Rick Combs

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