by Dorothy Rice
By 1698, Jonas Featherstone, once-promising portraitist, had fallen on hard times. As a skilled, classically-trained painter from an aristocratic family, he’d once enjoyed access to a ready supply of customers. Yet as Featherstone’s mastery grew, so did his insistence on recreating on canvas precisely what his eyes perceived. Rather than soften or disguise his subjects’ physical imperfections as they might have wished, by highlighting their fine clothes, household furnishings or boggle-eyed lapdogs, his brush dwelt on the blubbered intricacies of a countess’s many chins, the hairy mole on a banker’s cheek and his protuberant, red nose.
Despite their dire financial straits and her husband’s increasing agitation — Jonas had developed a tic in one eye and he’d begun to mutter to himself — Constance, his wife of five years, remained Jonas Featherstone’s staunchest supporter.
She’d entered his household as artist’s model and housekeeper. It was through painting his young model’s work-roughened hands, lopsided smile and mane of frizzled red hair that Jonas found new meaning in his work. He believed his true calling was to find beauty in the real, the natural, stripped of all artifice.
His father had threatened to disown his only son if he were to marry so far beneath him. But marry Jonas did, and disowned he had been.
While her husband struggled to drum up new commissions and peddle his stark studies of the human condition, Constance took in laundry and mending to keep food on their table. Though their bellies were often left wanting, they were otherwise content. Yet with the arrival of another harsh winter and no fuel for the fire, she’d developed a worrisome cough deep in her chest.
One evening, they shared a meal of watery soup and stale bread. Constance hacked into a handkerchief. Her spoon clattered to the table.
Jonas reached for his wife’s cold hands. “This can’t go on,” he said. “You need rest and a doctor.”
“Spring will come. I’ll soon recover. You’ll see.”
“Lord Thompson is after someone to paint his portrait,” Jonas said, rubbing her hands between his.
“Oh, but you can’t! You mustn’t. You’ve hit your stride, my dearest. Besides, Lord Thompson is—”
“An uncommonly homely man,” Jonas said, completing his wife’s thought.
Constance grinned but her laughter turned to a cough that left her wheezing for breath.
“Don’t worry. I’ll paint him as the handsome prince he imagines himself to be.”
The lanky artist pulled his wife to her feet. Humming a familiar tune, he danced her around the swept flagstone floor of their cottage. Resting a cheek on her coarse, coppery hair, he inhaled his wife’s intimate scent of wood smoke and lye.
* * *
The next morning, Jonas Featherstone presented himself to Sir Henry Thompson, Lord of Escrick, the manor house that presided over the village and surrounding county.
Thompson squinted up at Jonas. “You’re the chap who covered half of Lady Smithson’s face with a godawful port-wine stain,” he said, after Jonas made his offer. “What’s that you say?”
Jonas, who’d muttered that he hadn’t covered Lady Smithson’s face with a purple splotch; that had been nature’s handiwork, struggled to control the twitch in his right eye.
“I was only saying, your Lordship, that I’d bought a bad batch of paints. They changed color. Most unfortunate.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Thompson said, stifling a yawn.
“I’ll paint your portrait free of charge. You’ll pay me nothing, unless you find it completely to your liking.”
Thompson, who had just completed a major expansion and renovation of the manor house and grounds, had little else to occupy his time. Considering he had naught to lose, he accepted the desperate painter’s offer.
Sittings began the next day.
* * *
After keeping Jonas waiting in the drafty foyer, Lord Thompson appeared in a sateen dinner jacket and frilly white cravat. He wore his finest wig: a pomposity of silvery gray curls that corkscrewed past his elbows.
A butler and footman stood at the ready throughout their sessions, refilling wine goblets and plates with delectable cheeses, olives and exotic fruits. Jonas Featherstone’s stomach growled at the sight and smell of it all. For every bite he took, he slipped an equal portion into his pockets for Constance. And each evening, on his walk home, he plucked one yellow rose from the garden to lift her spirits.
It wasn’t until his third sitting with Lord Thompson that the painter’s artistic scruples were tested.
“Surely my nose is not so long and pointed as that,” His Lordship said. “And my forehead not nearly so high.”
Jonas, who had already veered from the truth more than he’d thought possible, without forfeiting any resemblance to his subject, pondered Lord Thompson’s beak and shiny forehead. The latter reflected the ceiling fresco: a naked Eve, apple in hand.
Reminded of his wife and her flagging health, the painter swallowed the hard lump in his throat and made the necessary adjustments to nose and forehead.
* * *
The final sitting arrived. With the portrait complete, save some final flourishes, Jonas worked well into the evening. His wife’s cough had worsened. That morning when he’d left for the manor, she’d been unable to rise from their bed. He was anxious to be paid. After which, no matter the hour, he planned to summon the town doctor, who’d refused to attend to Constance without payment.
Jonas daubed a last unseen twinkle in Thompson’s eye. He held the paintbrush aloft and pronounced the portrait done.
Lord Thompson approached the easel. Beaming, he struck a proud pose. “You have captured me to perfection. Well done! A bottle!” Thompson clapped his hands for the butler. “We must celebrate!”
“I wondered, Your Lordship, Sir,” Jonas said, sucking in his breath, “if we might discuss the matter of my commission. You see, my wife—”
Interrupting, Thompson cleared his throat, a gruff, rumbly sound that set Jonas back on his heels.
“The thing is,” Thompson said, reaching up to clasp the tall, thin painter firmly by the shoulders. “The peasants made such a flap when I had the town relocated to accommodate the new deer park and topiary gardens; it cost me dearly to settle the waters. But the rents will come in. You’ll be paid and paid well.”
Jonas’s eyes watered. His chin puckered.
Fearing the weedy painter might faint, Thompson fumbled inside his clothes and held something out to the man, much as one might a treat for a favored pet.
“Here, take this. As a mark of my good faith. This ring is my good luck charm. It’s quite rare.”
Unable to summon words, Jonas sputtered. Both eyes twitched. A ring wasn’t going to convince the doctor to rise from his bed. A ring wouldn’t fill his wife’s hollow belly or cure her cough. Not until he could sell it, which would take time.
Henry Thompson gripped Jonas’s hand and shoved the massive ring onto his pointer finger, where it wobbled on the artist’s long, bony digit.
“The grounds are magnificent by moonlight. You simply must see the topiary garden.”
“I’ll just add my signature to the painting.” Jonas staggered towards the easel.
“No time for that. The moon is high!” Lord Thompson spun the painter round and pushed him into the foyer. “To the stables!” His voice echoed in the stony, high-ceilinged chamber.
Thompson propelled the spindly painter out into the frigid November night. Jonas raised the heavy ring that he might better see it. A lone sapphire in a gold filigree setting. Lit by the moon, the red jewel glowed like a one-eyed beast.
Jonas was given a spirited black stallion to ride.
Henry Thompson led the way along the estate’s rambling paths. His Lordship’s robes trailed over his mount’s rump. His silver wig shone in the moonlight and flapped about his shoulders like the wings of a great bird of prey.
Featherstone bobbed in his seat. His mind, far distant from his surroundings, swirled with anxious thoughts. He’d rob a coach. Wake his father and beg for money. He’d been a fool to wait on the commission. If Constance took a turn for the worse, he’d never forgive himself.
“There it is,” Lord Thompson said, shouting over his shoulder.
The topiary garden, with its sculpted depictions of African animals, cast eerie shadows. Spooked at the unnatural sight of a shrubbery giraffe, Jonas’s mount reared. The horse clawed at the sky, then took off at a wild gallop. It leapt over ditches and streams as Jonas clung breathless to its mane. When the winded animal reached a stone wall, it came to a full and abrupt stop.
Jonas shot over the wall, arms outstretched as if to fly. The ring flew from his finger. In the instant before his head hit a block of Italian marble, he pictured Constance, languishing in their bed, hair a fiery halo on the pillow, her face pale beneath its covering of freckles.
* * *
Jonas Featherstone didn’t take to death. His uneasy spirit hovered near his wife. He watched, helpless, as pneumonia took her life. She was laid to rest beside him in the village cemetery.
Though close in flesh and bone, Constance’s spirit remained as still as the wooden cross that marked her grave. Jonas understood her silence as a deafening rebuke. He had failed his wife. His penance was to remain in purgatorial limbo. Uneasy. Unrequited. Impotent.
Determined to haunt Lord Thompson until the end of his days, Jonas Featherstone returned to Escrick manor. Yet haunting Lord Thompson brought no relief.
The manor prospered. Thompson was blessed with sons and daughters, and a succession of weak-chinned, eagle-beaked grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The ill-fated portrait hung in the main drawing room. When asked what artist had created such a fine portrait, Thompson would reply, “I can’t remember the chap’s name and, as you can see, he couldn’t be bothered to sign it.”
Jonas proved an ineffective ghost. Unable to make horses rear, objects plummet from the sky, or otherwise terrorize the Lord and his household, he could only waft unnoticed from room to room. Even his moaning and doorknob rattling failed to raise the slightest whiff of fear.
At 87, Lord Thompson’s died peacefully in his sleep.
In time, the cost of maintaining the great estate became too great for Henry Thompson’s heirs. The property became a holiday and pleasure park, popular for weddings and corporate retreats. The portrait was gifted to the Yorkshire Museum, where it was cataloged as “artist unknown.”
Jonas Featherstone’s spirit now had further to roam. From the neglected graveyard where Constance remained deaf to his tears and apologies, to the new home of his last work of art.
Then, one fall afternoon in 2009, nearly 300 years after the ring had flown from his outstretched finger, it reappeared, as a new exhibit at the Yorkshire Museum.
Jonas took this strange coincidence as a portent. But of what? The ring hadn’t been a good luck charm for him. Far from it.
According to the placard beside the ring’s glass display case, a hobbyist from the York Metal Detecting Club had unearthed it on the Escrick Estate, near the remains of the marble temple which had so abruptly ended Featherstone’s life. It proved a rare find, a pristine example of early Anglo-Saxon jewelry-making.
Noting the historical connection between the “Escrick Ring,” as it was called, and the portrait of Sir Henry Thompson, Lord of Escrick, the two were displayed side by side.
Jonas, who over the course of the past century had felt his consciousness dissolving and feared he would never be forgiven, never again hear his wife’s voice, experienced an odd reawakening of physical sensation. His hands, or where his hands had once been, tingled. His heart, or the place where his heart had once been, seemed to glow.
One afternoon, just before closing, a young woman wrapped in a diaphanous cloak and hooded scarf, entered the museum. She stood before the portrait and touched the card on the wall beside it. She ran a pale finger over the words, “Portrait of Sir Henry Thompson, c. 1705-1715, artist unknown.”
She beckoned to a pudgy man in a red waistcoat. Jonas recognized him as one of the museum’s curators.
“I know this artist,” she said. “Come with me.”
She possessed a powerful aura of authority and seemed to know the place well. As if in a trance, the man followed her into the museum’s bowels.
Jonas’s spirit drifted close behind.
Laid on a table, being prepared for future display, was Featherstone’s painting of Lady Forsyth Gray, replete with unfortunate drooped eye and overbite. The signature on the painting was as clear as the day he’d applied it.
“Ah yes, I see. The similarity in technique with the Thompson portrait is uncanny. I’ll assign someone to this right away. Very exciting, indeed. Thank you, Miss—”
The curator blinked and rubbed his eyes.
The woman had evaporated.
A tuneful humming thrummed in Jonas’s ears, or the place where his ears had once been. It was the same melody he’d often used to lift his wife’s spirits.
Constance was calling him home. Jonas was forgiven. Or he’d never been punished at all. Constance, it seemed, had only been determined that Jonas Featherstone receive the recognition that was his due. The painting had cost them both dearly. The sting of anonymity compounded the loss. Now that, at least, was rectified.
In the dusky sky above the Yorkshire Museum, Jonas Featherstone joined hands with his wife. Together they took up residence on the Escrick estate, as its grounds were far better kept than the town cemetery and more interesting, besides.
The dead artist’s spirit was now as peaceful as a dead artist’s spirit can ever hope to be. His work hung in museums, and he had his Constance at his side forevermore. And on certain nights, when the moon is high, it’s said the topiary animals come to life. Their raucous trumpeting, roaring and howling can be heard on the wind. And in the morning, the surrounding grass is trampled as if by wild beasts, and littered with yellow rose petals, though the rose garden lies on the far other side of the estate.
[Author’s note] Inspired by a portrait of Henry Thompson, ca. 1705-1715, artist unknown, York Museum Trust and by the so-called Escrick Ring, unearthed in 2009 by a metal detectorist in Escrick, Yorkshire.
Copyright © 2020 by Dorothy Rice