Myebook - To Deceive The King - click here to open my ebook

 This is a fictional story of the Princess Mary long before she became the first Queen of England. To read or listen as an audio ebook.

Copyright Diane Browne 2010

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Copyright Diane Browne 2010

Myebook - The Painting - click here to open my ebook

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PARANORMAL X
 
PRESENTS
 
THE PAINTING
 
By Diane Browne

Pieter shifted his posture, trying to get more comfortable as he sat on the edge of the bed studying the bristles of an artists brush, in need of cleaning. For Pieter was an artist, even if he was lazy about his tools. A few months ago he would have thrown them away, buying more. When a canvas didn't work out it was thrown to one side. He had plans, big ideas, fame and fortune was beckoning. With so much lost in the last war they would need artists. The fine houses, when they became re-established, would want the finest artists to envelope the walls with eloquent murals. Pieter had not lost that enthusiasm, that vision of painting the ceiling of some great church. Something that would last for centuries, making him immortal. He loved to paint, but when it came to cleaning up after himself, that was a different matter.

In the few months he had been in the studio there was many willing young females ready to pose for him. Paid handsomely, each one so beautiful as they sat in a chair, or more often, reclining on his bed, their naked bodies bathed in the midday sun. But that was in the first few weeks. Once the cold of winter set in even the small stove could not drive away the chill.

Deciding that some of the brushes were beyond help, Pieter threw them into the stove. The constant dripping on the window told him the icicles overhanging the roof were on the thaw. He needed to keep painting, and even more, to sell those he found acceptable. Though there were more rejects, at least he had plenty of canvases to work over.

Pieter had three more months. If he hadn't seen a profit by that time he would have to fulfil his promise and take a position at the bank. That was his fathers wishes. And that was the deal.

Finding the studio himself, it looked much more spacious when bare of furnishings. Once the bed had been set in place, a table to sit and eat, though it was always cluttered, two chairs went with it and an armchair. Pieter's plans to have more seating was waylaid when it was noted there would be nowhere for him to paint. His comfortable double bed was returned home, replaced by an old creaky single bed when the matter of space was pointed out by his father. After all, he was footing the bill, more to teach his son a lesson, failure being expected from the outset.

Pieter's mother was his inspiration, adoring his sketches. From childhood, telling him he would make a brilliant artist, buying him a pad and pastels to get him started. However, she would never praise her son in front of her husband, having completely different views on the matter. He did not like Pieter's artwork, and made it quite plain that without his help Pieter would not get anywhere. Pieter had been sent to the best schools, coming back with the lowest grades. It was not that Pieter wasn't intelligent, just lazy. Producing sloppy work and having no inclination to study. The thing he did excel at was art. That was why his mother encouraged him.

One thing Pieter was never any good with was money. His father would have been livid had he known how much of the house-keeping topped up his monthly allowance. Now he had moved into the studio his father still allowed him money for food, though Pieter had still gone cap in hand to his mother. She quite understood that Pieter needed to pay for extra's to build up his collection before becoming established.

Even with such a short time left, his father being adamant there would be no more rent coming from his pocket once the year was up, and no more allowance, Pieter was still optimistic of success, though he had sold only one painting. With it being the first of many, Pieter allowed them to bring down the price that it barely covered the costs. The lady went away quite happy, knowing she had struck a good bargain.

Taking the brushes that had sat overnight in a cleaning solution, he could not afford to replace them, having to make do with what he had. His mother couldn't keep bailing him out, not without his father getting to know. It had been made quite clear that the easel, canvasses, frames and everything else on Pieter's list of an artists needs was a loan which he was expected to repay, coming from his salary as a bank clerk.

The sun was rising, another days painting would soon be lost. With no money to pay the models, for they would not sit without, and wanted paying well to risk pneumonia, sitting half naked in the cold, draughty studio.

Wrapping up well as his mother always insisted, he went to walk the streets of Rotterdam, looking for inspiration. His last two works had been landscapes, showing the ravages of the war torn city. Hitler's legacy. His father had been critical as always.

Pieter could not bring himself to show either of his parents the portraits of the young females, blushing at the thought of them finding he had naked women in his room, on the bed where he slept. He could hear his father stating that there was more than one reason why they were unclothed, and he would be quite right. Pieter had not just enjoyed sketching and painting them, but had made love to all but one. Though she found Pieter very attractive, she was totally faithful to her sweetheart.

On three separate occasions he had tried to master horses, but this was from memory, and everyone knows a model is required to get a good likeness. He had done his best, but his father advised him to remain with portraits. Even then his father did not like them. The lines were wrong, the body and head out of proportion, the colours bland. Pieter sometimes wondered if his father even liked him. His mother showered him with affection, always having that smile, a sparkle to the blue eyes that Pieter favoured. On the other hand, his father was stern. It was not the manly thing to show any form of affection.

With these thoughts running through his mind Pieter realised he had never seen his parents kiss. There had been a quick peck on his mothers cheek before his father retired for the evening, though when he went to bed the whole household was expected to follow suit. His parents had separate rooms so as not to disturb one another. Pieter could quite understand why he was an only child as this arrangement had gone into practice early in the marriage. He had grown up thinking all couples had their own rooms.

Without realising, he had walked a good distance. The pathways were now clear. A ridge having formed where people had walked, the frozen snow that had fallen days ago in hillocks on either side. Those that had been bombed out were living rough, making shelters with whatever they could find. Pieter found himself on the verge of this depressing haven. Groups of unkempt humans of all ages stood warming themselves round braziers. Things were getting back to normal, but not quickly enough judging by the derelicts. Some would certainly not manage another winter.

Taking in the scene, Pieter imagined what it would look like on canvas. But like his father said, people didn't want to look at the misery of real life. A painting should give pleasure, depicting characters enjoying themselves. A country scene should be something you would want to see when looking out of a window. It was difficult remembering what had been there before the rubble.

Quickly turning as his sleeve was tugged, he hadn't heard the woman creep up beside him. Releasing her grip she held out her hand, repeating in a cracked, stilted tone her plea for spare change.

Pieter reeled back, repulsed by the look of the old crone. Wrapped in furs that had seen far better days, she gave a leering smile, showing the only tooth she still possessed. Shaking his head, Pieter took a couple of steps back. Finally finding his voice, telling her he had no money.

The smile was replaced by a glare, the dark pupils turning the darkest black. It was then that Pieter had an idea. He had never sketched anything but pretty young girls, and although old, so old as to be a hundred, there was character in each line of that grotesque face. The thin drawn out lips with the chin almost meeting the tip of the large hooked nose as she clamped her gums together.

There was no money in it for her, but Pieter said he would give her food in return for a favour. She screwed up her eyes as she inspected him suspiciously. Not having declined, Pieter went on to tell her he was an artist, and that he would like to paint her portrait.

Surprise fleeted across the weathered face. The eyebrows rose, or what was left of them, made up of long grey strands, reminding Pieter of spiders legs.

Now it was Pieter's turn to be surprised. The woman cackled as she informed him that she had, in her younger days, been a model. That there had been several portraits of her, but sadly none had survived the great war. Knowing her worth in her youth, she was not about to let such an opportunity slip by. She haggled. Her price was a meal and a nights lodgings.

Pieter ran a critical eye over her clothes, not expecting the body to be any more in the way of cleanliness. After she had departed he would have the bed stripped and fumigated. The old woman seemed to know what he was thinking, telling him she washed in melted snow and had no lice or ticks. Giving another of her cackling laughs in saying that no lice could stand the cold for so long.

Pieter grudgingly agreed to her terms, and with the old woman hunched up, walking by his side, he took her back to his studio.

Once in the room, having been unsure whether she could manage the three flights of stairs, Pieter added more fuel to the dying embers of the stove. Leaving the metal door ajar to warm the room, he went about setting up his easel.

The old woman unwrapped herself and Pieter saw her in her most hideous glory, more grotesque than he could have imagined. The shoes, tan with black scuff marks, looked more suited for a man. Thick navy stockings covered her thin spindled legs, the ravages of time taking away any curves they may have possessed. The torso was hard to conceive, covered in a thick, black knitted dress, suited to keep out the cold. If she had breasts, there was no sign of them now. The face, it was one that had lived. Pieter wondered how old she really was, but was too much of a gentleman to ask. The hair was just as grey as the eyebrows, and just as sparse, revealing the scalp, so defined as to see where each strand was rooted. The nose seemed even more prominent and he couldn't help but stare.

Hag or not, she had allowed Pieter to gaze on her long enough. More demanding than asking, she was in need of food and drink. With apologies, Pieter warmed up some soup his mother had brought, another luxury his father was unaware of. Finding some bread to accompany it, the old woman ate ravenously.

While she was on her second bowl Pieter took his largest canvas. He was anxious to get started with what little daylight was left as the sun sat high in the sky like a white orb.

All ready to begin, the old woman set down the empty bowl and made herself comfortable on the bed. Resting her back against the metal bedstead, plumping up the pillows before drawing up her bony knees.

Setting her head from one side to another until Pieter called for her to hold the pose. Shaking his head at her attempt to smile. Sitting so still, her skin so pale, she could be a statue. The light was fading fast as Pieter finished. Placing one last line with a sweeping gesture, he stood back.

The old woman, satisfied that her job was done, requested more food. Pieter lit a couple of oil lamps before setting some coffee on the stove. Giving his guest the rest of the bread and a little cheese he had been saving, that was all the food he had. If the old woman noticed he hadn't eaten, she refrained from saying anything.

Once finished, without asking for water to wash, she removed the black dress, and sitting on the bed took off the cumbersome looking shoes. Pieter sighed with relief as she pulled back the covers and got into bed. For one horrible moment he thought she was going to remove the grubby white smock, and whatever else she may be wearing.

It was not the first time that Pieter had worked with only the aid of a lamp. Apart from the armchair, there was nowhere for him to sleep. Not that he felt like sleeping while the old woman retained his bed. To forego one night would do him no harm.

The old woman appeared to have fallen asleep the moment her head touched the pillows. Looking even more haggard with the right side of her face in shadow, Pieter wished she had laid the other side, facing away from him as his glance kept going to her.

He had tried to hide the sense of unease he felt in her presence, growing stronger since entering the studio. Still there, even though she was sleeping. At one point when his gaze went to her he was sure she quickly closed that one visible eye. His mind was not fully consumed on his work, but he persisted, wanting to get it finished, out of the way, rather than his usual eagerness to proudly look upon his work.

Between mixing the paints, making up new colours, there was endless cups of black coffee to help stave off the pangs of hunger. The moon came up, almost full, throwing more light into the studio. It was this that gave Pieter the idea of making it a night scene.

By the morning's early light it was almost complete. Pieter stopped to look at the old woman as she began to stir. The bed covers moving as the body wriggled beneath them. This was the first signs of life as she had not moaned nor even did she snore, having remained so still that Pieter had wondered if she was not dead.

Now awake, the old woman threw back the covers, and retrieving her dress, pulled it over her head. Pieter returned to his work, trying to ignore her. She had said very little, not even answering him when he bid her goodnight, so refrained from wishing her a good morning. Keeping his eye on her, though there was not much worth stealing, he would not allow her to take so much as a spoon.

After lacing up her shoes she helped herself to what coffee was left. Building up the fire before sitting in one of the chairs warming herself.

Draining the cup, she placed it on the table, wrapped herself in her furs and opened the door. As it closed behind her Pieter felt himself relax. Sitting in the armchair, every muscle began to ache. He had been stood at his easel with little rest for most of the eighteen hours since first setting eyes on the old woman.

His back to the large skylight, looking across at the canvas, he gasped at what he had done. Now viewed from farther away it looked more lifelike than before. The woman could actually be there, glowering at him. Sat with her knees hunched up in the same pose as on his bed. Placing a brazier to one side, giving off an eerie light, throwing shadow onto the rugged face. The moon above lighting the wisps of hair. The hands clasped around the knees, the long fingers barely covered with parched skin, ending at yellowed nails.

Pieter had considered being kind, but as he began to paint over the sketch his resentment grew at her taking all his food, and to be sleeping in his bed. So there she sat in all her real life semblance. Pieter couldn't help but smile at the thought of what his father would say. He wouldn't be keeping it though. He could not bare to look on it for long. That gaze seemed somewhat malevolent rather than pleading for sympathy at the plight of being homeless.

A sudden blast of cold air rushed into the room as the door opened. Pieter shuddered, not knowing if it was from the chill, or the sight of the old woman. She had returned, carrying a bundle wrapped in a muslin cloth.

Placing it on the table as she unwrapped herself, chiding Pieter for not making more coffee in her absence. He did her bidding as she sat back down before the stove, the bundle on her knee, waiting until he placed a hot drink before her.

Pieter tried to hide his curiosity as he went back to the armchair, as far away from her as possible. As she unfastened the knot he couldn't help but smell the freshly baked bread as her bony fingers tore into it. He was too proud to ask, and she didn't offer to share any of the fare.

Rising to his feet, the painting, he decided, was finished. With his usual flair, using a small tipped brush dipped in a burnt mahogany, placed his signature in the bottom right-hand corner. Standing back, giving P. H. Heinst a nod of approval. Then, something unusual for him, he began cleaning his brushes.

Having retied her bundle, the old woman got to her feet, asking Pieter if she may look as she came towards him. Pieter was startled. It never dawning on him that she would want to see the finished product. His instinct was to block her way. After all, the portrait was far from flattering.

The old woman noted his quick movement, and eyeing him suspiciously, asked what he had done. Pieter had to think fast, telling her he did not like anyone seeing his work until it was complete, a superstition he knew some artists adhered to.

With a grunt of contempt the old woman moved so quickly that before Pieter realised, she was stood before the canvas. Pieter waited, holding his breath, ready for her to come at him. She would be able to do little, a frail old woman against a sturdy twenty year old.

Her eyes appraised the scene, showing no emotion. Pieter thought she may have gone into shock, trying to think if there was any of the brandy left that his mother gave him, strictly for medicinal purposes. He was surprised as a chuckle emanated from her, turning into a cackling laugh, still on guard in case she pounced upon him.

Instead, she nodded, giving that toothless grin. It was wonderful, marvellous, going into a tirade of French which Pieter could not understand. He had never been much good at foreign languages, though he had attempted German and English.

Going over to the bed, she began unlacing her shoes. Telling Pieter he had caught her like no other artist before him. They liked to make changes, calling it artistic interpretation she spat out in disgust. But Pieter, he had got her as she was. He had made her the happiest woman in Rotterdam.

Having removed her shoes, the old woman put her feet up to lay on the bed, much to Pieter's consternation. As she settled down, pulling the top blanket over herself, Pieter reminded her that the bargain had been for just the one nights lodgings.

Raising her head from the pillows to give him a cold, hard stare, she informed him she would not be there much longer. Asking if he would deny her a little rest before turning her back out onto the cold streets, Pieter could not bring himself to answer. Turning his back on her he returned to cleaning his brushes.

The old woman settled herself back down, and as the night before, was soon asleep. Glancing out of the window, the sun was coming up. If he didn't wake the old woman soon she would still be there when his mother arrived. Paying regular visits on her son to make sure he was looking after himself. At the same time returning his freshly laundered clothes and bedding, and bringing food to keep him well fed. Without her, Pieter would not have survived all these months, much to his fathers chagrin, only having given his son two months to return home with his tail between his legs.

Having cleaned up, tidying the studio, clearing the table of its clutter, the only thing remaining was the old woman's bundle. But as curious as he was, Pieter dare not try to find out what it contained.

It was gone noon and he could wait no longer. Placing a hand on the old woman's shoulder, even with the blanket over her he could feel the bony joint. Giving a little shake, in a low voice telling her she had to get up. Another shake, more firmly. She couldn't stay there.

Pieter swallowed hard. He was sure she was dead. He couldn't bring himself to touch that pallid flesh in search of a pulse. The seconds seemed like minutes as he wondered what he should do.

Suddenly spotting his shaving mirror, he placed it near her face. The old woman had not moved, and holding the glass at an angle, below the hook of the nose, as near to the mouth as he could bring himself. Removing it after a few seconds, no breath had put a film upon it. It appeared that the old woman had died without a hint of pain, in her sleep, as most would like to pass from this world into the next.

A few moments of pacing the floor. In reality he should contact the authorities. Then there would be an inquiry as to how she died. He would be questioned as to why she was sleeping at his studio. With wild imaginings of what it was like to be accused of murder, Pieter realised he did not even know her name. He still wasn't really sure if she was dead.

Throwing back the blanket, uncovering the body, he almost fell over her shoes. With a grimace on his handsome young face, he placed them back on her bony feet, thankful she had on the thick, knitted stockings.

Laying the blanket on the floor beside the bed, Pieter pulled at her clothing. The body went with a dull thud as it dropped onto the blanket. Pieter waited, listening, hoping no one would come to find out what was happening. But all was quiet. Letting out his breath, he wrapped the blanket round the old woman, covering her. It was a relief not to have to look at that hard, stony face.

Carrying her to a fixed cupboard in the corner of the room, this was where Pieter stored his spare canvasses and other materials. The body was lighter than expected. The old woman must only have weighed a few stone. Pushing the bundle between upright paintings, he would have to wait for nightfall before he could dispose of it in some quiet spot.

Closing the door as footsteps on the stairs, the familiar creek of the twelfth step down. His mother would be there any minute. Gasping for breath as his heart missed a beat at the sight of the old woman's fur's. He had just thrown them into the cupboard when there was that familiar knock before his mother entered.

Slamming the cupboard door shut he turned with a forced smile. His mother was surprised to see the place looking so tidy. Never having time to stay long, set immediately to work, stripping the bed. Pieter was glad she was too busy to notice his hands trembling as he made the coffee.

Querying as to where his blanket had gone, Pieter quickly made up one of his stories. An old woman had come to the door begging. Feeling sorry for her he had given her some food and the blanket. His mother was touched by his kindness. As he sat in the chair by the stove, where the old woman had placed it, his mother stood behind him, rubbing her hand through his tousled hair before planting a kiss on the top of his head.

It was then that his mother saw the old woman's bundle, still on the table. Asking what it was, Pieter lied yet again, telling her he found it that morning by his door.

Suggesting it could be the old woman repaying the favour, before Pieter could stop her she was untying the knot. The cloth fell back to reveal a small joint of cooked meat, a small loaf of bread, two eggs and a large, fresh fish, it's black eye starring up at them.

Pieter was just as amazed as his mother. The old woman looked like she hadn't eaten in days, and yet she had amassed so much, and with no money. Not offering him so much as a crumb from the loaf she had already consumed.

His mother looked upon the hoard with favour, asking if that was all Pieter had done, given her food and a blanket. Pieter reluctantly admitted that he had also allowed her to sit by the stove awhile.

Nodding her head knowingly, she told Pieter he had been blessed for his kindness, for it was always a bad omen to cross a witch. Pieter had never heard his mother talk like this before. Witches belonged in fairy stories and he couldn't help teasing her. But she was none too pleased that he should take it so lightly.

Openly voicing his opinion that she was just an ugly old woman down on her luck. Brazenly announcing, that with her permission, he had completed her portrait that day. The instant the words were out Pieter wished he could take them back. It had not been his intention for anyone to see the monstrosity, especially a member of his own family. But it was said and done and his mother was already over at the easel.

Only needing to glance at the moonlit scene, her body giving a shudder as she looked away. Although repulsed, his mother had already made up her mind that no matter how horrid, the painting would bring her son luck. Being even more convinced that the old woman was a witch.

Taking his dirty laundry, leaving him more supplies of food, Pieter helped with her furs. He had not seen his mother so excited in a long while. She would talk to his father that very evening. Although a stern man, she always knew how to get round him. With his contacts through the bank she was sure he would know someone with a gallery. Somewhere for Pieter to display his work.

Seeing her to the door, kissing her on the offered cheek, Pieter once again promised to go through his canvasses. At the closed door he listened to the footsteps descending the stairs, letting out a sigh of relief. If his mother had known the old woman had died there, in that very room, and was, at that moment in time, unceremonially trussed up in his cupboard, she would swear that he was cursed.

Although his hunger had past he cut some of the meat and bread that had belonged to the old woman, washing it down with more coffee. Resting on the bed, the tiredness washed over him. He would need some sleep before undergoing the gruesome task in disposing of the body. Closing his eyes, he soon fell into a long, deep sleep.

Suddenly sitting up, the full moon gave plenty of light for Pieter to see. Quickly realising where he was after such weird dreams. His subconscious taking him to his first real exhibition. But no one was interested in his work, except for one painting. People were flocking to see the portrait of the old crone.

Sipping champagne as he watched the crowd jostle for a better view of the renowned work. At a low cackle he found the old woman at his elbow.

Giving him a view of that single yellowed tooth, she told him the praise the painting was receiving was not all his doing. When she died her spirit entered the canvas, mingling with the still moist oils.

It was a scream from one of the spectators that woke him. It had been so real, enough so for it to still be ringing in his ears. Yet the room was empty, and silent.

Taking up his watch, it was nearly two in the morning. Time to get up. Splashing his face with cold water, Pieter wrapped up well. It seemed too much to carry the body and her furs, and so they were left behind.

Propping the corpse up just inside the door, Pieter checked the street. There was no one around, the streets seeming more quiet than usual. Throwing the old woman over one shoulder, Pieter headed back to the area where they had met. There was plenty of half-bombed buildings. It was in one of these where he left her. Kicking aside the rubble before laying the body down, arranging it to look like that was where she had fallen asleep. Someone was bound to find her. Work had already begun, tearing down the unsafe buildings to replace them with new.

Returning to the studio by a different route, looking over his shoulder to make sure he wasn't followed. Once inside, Pieter lit all the candles he could find, as well as the two lamps. Feeling hungry, he fried the two eggs, finished off the meat and bread, taken with the half bottle of brandy he had found.

For supper that night he ate the fish while cutting up the old woman's furs, burning them in the stove. The smell was not too pleasant, but it kept the room warm, and got rid of the evidence. If anyone asked, he could say she spent only a couple of hours. That he had sketched and painted her from memory. After all, he was sure he could still do yet another portrait, being one of those faces that was hard to get from the mind.

Over the next couple of days Pieter set out all his best works. As promised, his mother had worked her charms. An appointment was made for someone to call and inspect his work.

Much to Pieter's disappointment, he was told the countryside scenes were of no appreciation. The man seemed in some doubt over the nudes, but knowing his clients best, selected five, and of course the old woman, under the instruction of his mother. It would be a focal point, a matter of contention. Though it was not to his liking, someone may see it as a curiosity. It was arranged for the canvasses to be collected the next day, sent to be framed, and two weeks later would see their first public appearance.

It was an anxious time. Pieter was finding it hard to sleep. The fear of failure was greater the nearer the time came. Fretting so much that his mother insisted he return home. She never really liked the idea of him sleeping in that cold, draughty studio.

Pieter tried to sound reluctant as he agreed. At least this way he was returning to appease his mother and not of his own accord. His father welcomed him in that formal groughness, seeming a little startled to see his son and heir so dishevelled, not having shaved or paid a visit to the barber. But Pieter thought to let his hair grow, and a beard, fitting in with his artistic contemporaries. Of course, his father did not agree. Pieter was to clean himself up and be wearing a suit or his father would not be attending his debut. It was at this point that Pieter learned his father was backing the exhibition, seeing it as an investment. He would get his money back in commission, if the paintings were sold. This put an even greater pressure on the young man as neither parent had seen the work that was to be displayed.

Doing his fathers bidding, Pieter had his hair cut and made an early appearance, well turned out and clean-shaven. Arriving at the gallery by taxi, just as the doors were opened to allow entry to the small crowd that had formed out on the pavement. The exhibition, on this first day, was by invitation only, the galleries best customers, friends and family of the artists, and, of course, the inevitable critics.

Having entered the building, it seems they had missed the commotion by a few seconds. A woman lay spread out on the floor. The gallery owner was calling for water. A deep booming voice rang out, exclaiming, `Good God`. The look of disgust on another man's face told Pieter that was where his portrait was mounted. Another glancing at the wall shuddered before turning his back.

The lady was coming from her swoon. With the aid of two gentleman, sat upright. Taking a sip of water from the offered glass, smiled her thanks. The gallery owner, seeing her to her feet, insisted she go to his office to rest.

The men, having gathered together, followed her with their gaze, quite certain it was due to the painting. Described as a repugnant abhoration Pieter wanted to turn and flea. Quickly taking his mothers arm, Pieter guided her to a landscape painting as his father joined the gentlemen in their conversation.

Pieter, full of praise for the scene, though not fully aware in trying to listen to the conference going on behind him, rambling as always when not concentrating on what he was saying. He had to ask his mother to repeat herself. She complied, asking if the work was his. Shaking his head in reply, his mother lost interest, her gaze in search of her son's work, eager to see what had been submitted. It was the old woman that caught her eye.

Approaching the gruesome scene, one of the gentleman called out to stop her. Thanking him for his concern, she moved closer to inspect the painting, now looking quite splendid in a gold leaf frame. Suddenly grasping at Pieter's elbow, averting her gaze. In a faint whisper, telling him the painting was alive.

Pieter looked at the old woman. There did seem to be something different. The flesh had more colour than the pallor he had given it. The wrinkles, each and every one seeming more defined. That one single tooth was more discoloured than he remembered. He gave a gasp, guiding his mother away. He did not know what trick the gallery was playing, but that was not his painting. The old woman in his portrait had her lips tightly drawn together.

Requesting to see the owner, Pieter was told he was busy with the lady who had fainted. Trying to impress upon the menial that it was an urgent matter, remaining polite, but his father intervened. Saying they would return later, Pieter, along with his mother, was ushered from the gallery.

His father remained tight-lipped about the whole affair. It was annoying enough that they had difficulty in finding a taxi to get them home. Once there, Pieter's father indicated him to follow, proceeding on into the study. From being a boy this was where his father always took him when dishing out advice, and punishment. Still in awe of the place as he sat opposite his father, a large mahogany desk separating them. There was still those memories of his father removing his belt, metering out a few lashes for some misdemeanour.

Pieter gave a nervous smile but his father was not amused, and said as much. Always having to air his side of things first, he was appalled that Pieter could paint such a vile thing. Having formulated a plan, he told Pieter they would not return to the gallery until the exhibition was over. Once the paintings were returned all of them would have to be destroyed, with any thoughts of being an artist coming to an end. People would soon forget and Pieter could settle down to a very good position at the bank. Once that was resolved in his mind, Pieter could have his say. Telling his father the portrait of the old woman was not the one he had painted, although he had to admit it bore his signature, it was not the same. He did not want to work at the bank, and in his temper said he did not care what his father thought. He was a good artist and would show him. Rising to his feet, Pieter announced that he was returning to the studio.

Instead of arguing, his father sat with a slight smile curling the corners his lips. This was the first time he had ever raised his voice to his father, always meekly agreeing with his elders advice and opinions. His fathers words echoed in his head as he left the room. Pieter tried to figure out what he meant by `we shall see`. He sounded so confident, still expecting his son to fail.

Pieter kissed his mother as she stood on the threshold, looking quite disconcerted. With no money, he had to make his way on foot. At least his mother had managed to slip him some food, once she realised she could not talk him into staying.

Pieter had no intention of keeping away from the gallery. The next morning he put on his suit, combed out his fair hair and went to see how his work had been critically favoured.

No sooner had Pieter entered the gallery than the owner approached him. In somewhat of an excited state he ushered the young artist to his office.

Asking if Pieter had noticed the large number of people patronising the gallery, he nodded in reply. Not having taken an interest in the work of other artists, Pieter had never attended a proper exhibition, so did not know what to expect in the way of visitors. He was assured that it was unusual, and that it was all due to him and his painting. The gallery manager actually smiled as he told Pieter that three more females had dropped in a dead faint at the sight of the old woman. They were in the process of printing warning notices, and the mornings newspapers contained details of how the first lady had fainted.

Seeing the blank look on Pieter's face, the manager proffered a newspaper, already on the relevant page. It did not favour Pieter's work, describing the old woman as a witch too grotesque for any fairy-tale. Asking what other imaginings could be in the mind of someone who could think up such a face. Pieter grunted as he threw the newspaper onto the desk, it being far from his imagination. Speaking out his thoughts, wishing he could put the model before them.

With a gasp of delight the owner said that if such a person existed, to have her there would be one of the greatest coups. Pieter's shoulders dropped, shaking his head sadly, he did not know if the man believed him when he said she had died shortly after posing for the portrait.

The gallery owner stood up, bringing the interview to an end. Two inches shorter than Pieter, he slipped an arm over his shoulders as they approached the exit. In a smooth voice, assuring Pieter that he would keep in touch. It was not necessary for him to be there every minute of the day. A young man such as himself would be busy with other things. It was not until Pieter stepped out onto the pavement, the gallery owner closing the door, that he realised he had been told, in a subtle way, not to go there again.

Though Pieter tried to paint, visualising a scene from his childhood, he found it difficult. He had no thoughts but for that one painting.

His mother brought him food, trying to hide her concerns, the fact that the old hag had become front page news. A top officials wife, having gone into a dead faint after confronting the portrait, brought concerns, and the painting was to be removed. One witness stated that the lady had starred at the portrait for some moments before collapsing. Two others, one a man, had fled from the gallery with an expression of horror.

It was two days later that the gallery owner paid a visit to Pieter's studio. He was full of sympathy, but was sure Pieter could understand his position. The painting had already been moved to a small alcove with a warning notice, but curiosity got the better of most.

Under cover of darkness all the paintings were returned. Standing them up against a wall, Pieter uncovered the old woman, setting it on the easel. It was going to be an easy task to eradicate the scene. First, Pieter, in his bitterness, vented his anger. It was her fault. He should never have allowed himself to think that something so ugly could be brought to life in a painting. He did not want to be remembered for making people shudder with disgust, though that was how it seemed at the moment.

Holding in his hand a tin containing paint thinner, Pieter faced the old woman. There was a hint of triumph in his voice as he told her how he enjoyed the food from her bundle. The mouth, once again tightly clamped, Pieter could feel the evil as those dark eyes bore into his very soul. But he had the upper hand. Calling out that he had also burned her furs, at the same moment throwing the thinner onto the canvas.

The oils dispersed together, streaking down the rough material, dripping onto the bare boards in a hue of dark, muddy colour. Using a rag to wipe off the excess, taking away any evidence of what had been there. Halting, peering into the shadowy corners where the lamplight could not reach. Pieter was certain he had heard something, like the cackle of the old crone. But he had been under a lot of strain these past few days. He couldn't afford to let his imagination get the better of him. Not now.

The canvas was now only a series of brown streaks. He had destroyed whatever evil was contained there. It would soon be light and he needed to rest. Heating the stew his mother had brought, after the supper he settled down to sleep, though he could not bring himself to douse the lamp, setting it on the table to emit a secure golden halo.

Waking suddenly, opening his eyes to bright daylight, more short raps came on the door. Quickly getting from the bed, turning the key, thankful he had slept in his clothes as he allowed entry to his mother. She was not alone, accompanied by a well dressed gentleman.

The stranger looked Pieter over, obviously not impressed. Pieter's clothes were creased and his hair unkempt, as well as being in need of a shave. Not caring for himself, the weight loss giving him a haggard pallor, making him look much older than his twenty years.

His mother took things in hand. After a quick introduction, the gentleman was taken over to view Pieter's work. It appeared he was the owner of the newspaper that gave such detailed accounts on the mystery of the painting it had dubbed, `The Hag`. Standing before the easel, nodding his approval at the canvas, announced that he would take it.

Things had happened so quickly that Pieter was still by the door. Thinking the man a fool, he moved to stand beside him, wanting to see what the newspaper owner thought he could see in the smeared paint.

Instead of a browned canvas, there sat the old woman, perched on the rubble, lit by a full moon. Her thin lips slightly curved in the gesture of a smile.

Pieter was speechless as the man said he could not see what all the fuss was about. Not having been able to attend the exhibition, he had sent reporters who returned with horror stories. Although, he agreed it was not something one would put in the drawing room, it did have something of a talking point. As a collector he had no objections in adding it to his other works.

Pieter's mother tried hard to sell another painting. The man politely appraised each canvas, but anyone could see he was not interested.

For his wanting the painting, he drove a hard bargain. Stating that no one would pay the asking price the gallery had placed upon it. Then there was the commission that Pieter no longer had to pay. And the added expense of framing, as the gallery had removed the one it had been mounted in. Pieter finally agreed to taking half of what had been expected. It still found a profit, which brought a smile from his mother.

Wishing to take charge of his purchase there and then, Pieter took one last look at the old woman before wrapping it in brown paper. She was having the last laugh. He could even hear that broken cackle as he tied it round with string.

Pieter remained at the studio until his time was up. But he had lost that urge to paint, that passion that overtook him when faced with a blank canvas. He had to admit, there was nothing for it but to take the position at his father's bank.

Cleaning out the studio, he sold the easel along with the paints, throwing away the brushes that no one wanted. The bed was left for the new tenant to do with as they pleased. His father gave some of the paintings away. As the recipients lightly smiled their gratitude Pieter knew they would never see the light of day, probably ending up in an attic gathering dust. As for the forms of the naked young girls, his father could not allow anyone to know his son did such things, and so it was decided to have a bonfire.

All Pieter could do was stand and watch as the flames danced in a languish of colour as they ravaged each portrait. His father threw the last into the flames as Pieter's mother came from the house, accompanied by a gentleman. Pieter did not recognise the man at first, the newspaper owner had lost so much weight that his fine tailored suit hung from him. That air of self-confidence had also deserted him as he begged Pieter to take back the painting. Holding out the package, still wrapped in brown paper, his hands trembling. Pieter's father quickly took charge, informing the newspaper owner that there would be no refund. But he did not want one. Since the painting had come into his possession there had been so many strange occurrences that his wife wanted it out of the house. When pressed, he would not reiterate further.

Pieter's father offered him the honour of throwing it onto the bonfire. Shaking his head with horror at the thought of what could be brought about by destroying the painting himself.

Pieter snatched it from him and with all his force, threw it into the built-up inferno. Flames swept up in a rush, nine feet high. The spectators stepped back in fear of being burned. Covering his eyes to peer into the intense light, Pieter was sure he could see the old woman, fighting to put out the fire that was consuming her. All heard the loud shriek as the flames returned to normality.

The newspaper owner, pale at what he had witnessed, quickly made his excuses to leave. Pieter's mother offered to see him out, having to run to keep up with his long strides.

Pieter gave a deep sigh. He was having to work late yet again, trying to correct his errors. After all, his father had known he was no good at arithmetic. No other bank manager would certainly have employed him. If he hadn't met that old hag he would still be in his studio, making a living as an artist. His thoughts going to those voluptuous young girls, sketching them, then making love to them, keeping them warm when they complained of the chill.

There was still hope. His mother had already began to work on her husband. Suggesting that Pieter should have a hut in the garden. Somewhere to try his talents as a sculptor.

Copyright Diane Browne 2003

 
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