Be Warned: These are the scribblings of a writer unruly, unsupervised, and largely unrepentant

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Private Collection - excerpt #1

From the first portrait - Lina (Engraved)


April, 1888

It was a bright, dewy, spring day when she watched Randolph Blackwood die and saw Hell freeze over. Like any vision worth its salt, it took her by surprise.

Evangeline Phillips didn’t believe in fairy tales, pixies, witches, or ghosts. She was, in fact, a very level-headed woman, practical and never burdened by too many wistful ideas. It was, therefore, often a great irritation to her when she saw something that wasn’t there or hadn’t happened yet.

Whoever gave her this talent never bothered to leave instructions on what she should do with it, so most of the time she simply ignored the visions. Unless they told her which horse was about to win the three o’clock at Newmarket, of course. That was self-explanatory.

But the visions weren’t always convenient or useful. More often than not, they were trouble. This particular one pushing its way into her mind on an innocent Monday morning was surely a warning. In her garden flinging damp linens over the washing line, she was thinking about nothing in particular, generally minding her own business. And then she saw it happen.

Randolph was in a favorite old chair by his library fire, a book spread over his knee. Beside him a small table held a glass of port, a half-eaten slice of pork pie, a wedge of waxy cheese, and a dollop of his housekeeper’s pickle. The curtains were drawn and the gas lamps on as if he’d sat there since the night before. His head leaned against the scarred leather, his fine mane of pure white hair blowing very gently in a sly breeze through the open window. His lashes twitched, his lips cracked open to expel one last breath and then his long fingers, splayed over the arm of his chair, tightened into a claw, nails digging in as if they had one last task to fulfill. A task for his sons, no doubt. Everything he did was for them, he’d told her once. Intensely proud of all three sons, he never showed it, fearing it would make them weak.

Now it was too late. A new, deeper stillness settled over his face, only those snowy curls occasionally dancing against the leather chair back. The gas lamps puttered quietly and a coal fell in the hearth, tumbling with a soft crackle among the cinders of last night’s fire. Above it, a glass-domed skeleton clock with spinning brass balls whipped time onward, with no one to watch it, no one in the room to need it anymore. As she watched, a strange frost sparkled on the smooth glass dome. It sprouted sharp fingers that stretched across the face of the clock. The air in the room grew colder and thinner by the second.

The body of Randolph Blackwood wouldn’t be discovered for another few hours, but he was gone. Evangeline Phillips, with her eyes closed, felt the naughty little devil leave.

On his mantle, the glass dome cracked and ice spread through his walls.

The vision cleared and she was back in her garden, new grass rustling at her feet. Jade green shoots pierced the rich, dark earth; sprouting buds peppered every tree and bush, so pleased with themselves they couldn’t wait to burst open and show off. The air was fresh and vital, not yet too warm, but slightly heavy with damp and the sickly sweet perfume of blossom. It was a good day to learn of an old friend’s passing. Had it been rainy or overcast, it might have depressed her, but on this day, with rebirth all around, she didn’t mourn for Randolph.

In any case, residency in this world was temporary and she’d always suspected his spirit was an unwelcome squatter. That somehow he’d slipped into the world with one intention—to create havoc. He got away with as much as he could, before he was found out and sent back where he belonged.

Turning slowly, empty basket under one arm, she walked back across the lawn and then stopped, remembering.

The painting. What would happen to it now? A little spark of panic burned in her belly.

She was young and nervous when she posed for Randolph in nothing but her stockings and a hair wreath of orange blossoms, but she needed money and he had plenty of it. Mysterious wealth, gained, as many claimed, through illicit means. And Randolph could charm the bloomers off a nun.

She laughed. Slapping a hand over her mouth, she worried one of her neighbors might hear her amusing herself like a fool on a Monday morning washday. Giddy merriment certainly wasn’t something to which she often succumbed. Her first husband used to complain her American manners were too casual, too unguarded, and she laughed too much. Well, he soon broke her of the habit. In two years she went from her father’s pampered daughter and society belle to a penniless ghost, an unhappy wife, abandoned in a foreign country, all her youthful illusions shattered. She supposed, in some ways, he did her a favor, shook her out of her silly, romantic imaginings and made her grow up.

Her second husband, Dr. Eustace Phillips, was a somber fellow who married her, she suspected, because his mother had died and he couldn’t find a good housekeeper. Once again, laughter, if it ever came accidentally to her lips, was out of place, not wanted. As he would say in his grave, dreary tone, seeing so many sick and dying in his lifetime took the urge to jest out of him. Then she felt guilty for finding any amusement when he couldn’t partake of it. Her second husband could make her wilt with one disapproving glance until she no longer wanted to experience the smallest uplift of joy, in case it might prove her to be, in his eyes, a selfish wanton.

Today when she laughed her first instinct was to swallow it down, deny it. Then she remembered neither husband was there to chide her. She was alone and could do as she pleased.

Almost.

A woman living alone, an American no less, with two dead husbands to her credit and a talent for palm-reading was an easy target for gossip and speculation.  

Now Randolph, her one remaining true friend, was gone. His sons would descend like vultures to pick over their father’s belongings for anything of value.

Oh! She touched her warm cheek with a cold hand.

Adam.

He would see the painting, inevitably, and draw his own bitter conclusions. This was not good for her, not at all.

Randolph promised her that the portrait was for his private collection only, but what would happen now? His sons would have the house cleaned out in a matter of days. And if she went there to ask for one of their father’s paintings, they would want to know why. She couldn’t afford to buy it from them, which meant she must rely on their charity.

Charity? From one of Randolph’s self-centered, hard-hearted sons? She was kidding herself. Might as well stand in the way of a wild herd of stallions with the scent of blood in their nostrils.

And she couldn’t go there because then she would see Adam, the last man she ever wanted to see again.

Boy, she corrected herself hastily, not man, boy. After all she’d been through, she knew the difference. Once, she was young and merry and thought the world was her oyster. But that all ended the day she married a man she thought was in love with her, a man who wooed her with roses and lies, because he wanted her father’s money. Then reality slapped her hard in the face and knocked the mist out of her eyes.

If reality had not yet slapped Adam Blackwood, he was lucky. He’d been spoiled, but sooner or later he’d learn a person couldn’t have everything that caught his eye, every pretty thing he wanted. In any case, pretty things were deceptive.

Perhaps he wouldn’t recognize her in the portrait. After all, it was painted more than ten years ago and she hadn’t seen Adam in more than five.

She studied her lily-pale face in the window and watched a lock of her dark hair slyly unwinding from its respectable, braided knot.

Again, when she closed her eyes, she saw the threads of gleaming frost take possession of the glass clock dome on Randolph’s mantle, spread a glistening claw and shatter it.

Oh yes, it was a warning.

Lips set firm, she walked quickly into the cottage, her heartbeat so uneven she was almost dizzy. Inside it was cooler, the light dim. She set her basket down and made her way along the flagged stone passage to the parlor where a pack of Tarot cards waited face-down on the embroidered tablecloth. Somewhere a clock was ticking, but it couldn’t have been in her house for she hated the sound and never kept one near.

She stole a calming breath and spread the fingers of one hand.

Fate was irreversible. No one knew that better than she did. There was nothing she could do to stop it. She simply wasn’t sure she wanted to know what was coming.

Finally she picked up the cards and dealt them carefully.

It’ll be a cold day in Hell, Adam Blackwood, when I let you into my bed.”

And the conceited young cub had looked at her over one shoulder, his eyes very dark. “I daresay we’ll soon warm it up again.

Read more about the Blackwood Brothers and their father's muses in A PRIVATE COLLECTION, available here.

Jayne

(painting by Angelo Asti 1847-1903)

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