h1

The Painted Face

“Oh yes it is true!” Lady Margarette whispered to the duchess excitedly. “It is said that with the strokes of his brush, and by some arcane power, he can reverse the damage of years!”

Carmine, the Duchess of Forque, dressed like a small, but colourful, haystack, looked doubtfully at her sister as they sat fanning themselves amid the throng of mingling bourgeoisie. She was the elder of the two and senior by some ten years, making her in her late thirties. Margarette was fond of reminding her of this fact; she had always been embittered that the Duke had chosen Carmine as his wife.

“You are not getting any younger sister,” Margarette said smugly. “Why isn’t that the Duke over yonder. Who is that he is talking to?” Both knew well that the Lady Offington, a recent widow, sought a new husband, and cared little if the party was presently married or not.

“Look at how fresh she appears, I hear it is because she has had her portrait done by a mysterious young magician-artist only this past week. He is the talk of the town,” She continued.

“Pure nonsense sister,” Carmine said dryly. She got up from her seat to join her husband, fanning herself vigorously.

The party had ended early with her feigning a malady. Her husband, a socialite by nature, had been disappointed of course but had cheerfully escorted her home. Now she sat in front of her mirror removing her bodice and corset, with the assistance of her maid.

Staring at her fading beauty Carmine touched the lines at the corners of her eyes and ran her hand across the beginnings of loose skin. She was getting old. How long would it be before her husband no longer wanted her? Even now, some nights they slept in separate beds. Sadly, she wiped away the white paint.

“Martha?” she addressed her maid-servant. “What do you know of this magician-artist that everyone speaks of?”

“My lady,” Martha paused nervously not sure what to tell. ”It is said he has the power, through his craft with the paint and brush, to turn back the years on those he paints a portrait,” Martha said as she busied herself with Carmine’s discarded apparel. “I have also heard that he has a stall in the market where he sells his landscape paintings.”

Carmine had little faith in charlatans and soothsayers and was not superstitious by nature, but she could not pull her mind away from the possibilities. If indeed this artist had some unearthly power, she could forget all her troubles. As she pulled on her night gown she made up her mind to interview the fellow on the morrow.

“I will speak plainly; I wish you to paint my portrait.” The young man, barely out of his teens, sat steely-eyed in front of her. He was a handsome though awkward-looking fellow with rough edges and a morbidly pale complexion; his clothes were stained and paint daubed. He said nothing in reply.

“I have been told your work is . . . remarkable,” she added when the silence had grown uncomfortable.

“I paint landscapes,” he said flatly with a common drawl. His deep, dark eyes revealing nothing. She shivered involuntarily, there was something unpleasant about the fellow that she could not quite put her finger on.

She looked down and touched her face, then looked up at him almost pleading, “I know of your talents. It is said that you can reverse the aging process through painting a subject’s portrait. Is that not so?”

“No your grace, you are mistaken; I am a simple landscape painter.” He went to reach down to a portfolio that he carried with him, “I can show you some examples if you are interested . . .”

She cut him short, now she had anger in her eyes. “No sir, do not play games with me!” She paused for effect. “I am the Duchess of Forque, and you will do as I bid! I know well of your service to the Lady Offington this past month.”

For the first time the man showed some kind of emotion although she could not tell if it was fear, pity or something altogether different. Whatever it was it seemed to have the effect she sort.

“Very well your grace”, he adjusted his shirt. “I will paint your portrait.”

Her flushed face began to fade and she added conciliatorily, “You will be paid well for your service I assure you.”

“When do we begin?” she asked, but then responded before he could. “Shall we say Wednesday at ten?”

The man simply nodded solemnly.

For the week following, the artist came to her husband’s estate and worked on the portrait. Though they were constantly mere yards away from each other they did not engage in any kind of communication. Carmine attempted small talk at first but it soon became apparent that the young artist was keen to simply complete his work and leave, so she stopped and simply sat quietly allowing her to think on her soon-to-be-regained youth. They would work for two hours at a time and then would break for short intervals. He only asked one odd thing of her: he requested a few locks of her hair from which he made his brushes.

After the first day she felt exhausted and upon looking in the mirror saw little change in here appearance; she thought for sure that the youth was just another charlatan and that she had been a fool to believe. But on the second day she felt better and was pleasantly surprised to see the heavy lines around the corners of her eyes beginning to soften. On the third and fourth days she felt quite refreshed and the loose flesh around her jowls was visibly firming. Her hair too seemed somehow brighter. On the fifth day she felt like a new woman, and all day she itched in her seat barely able to contain her youthful energy.

Eventually, at the end of the sixth day the artist looked up and said plainly, “Madam, it is finished”.

She came around to his side and looked at the masterpiece, for it was truly a remarkable likeness of her, and she smiled broadly. She reached out to touch the slow-drying paint, but with lightning speed the artist shot out his hand and grabbed her wrist.

“No! You must let it dry,” he looked frightfully at her. “You must not let anything happen to it, keep it from harm lest . . . “, he shook his head slowly. “You do not want to know what will happen. Keep it safe, always.”

She pulled away from him fearfully but watched as he quickly packed up his jars, brushes, paints and palettes. He was halfway to the gate before she remembered that he had not been paid.

“Boy!” She hollered, the spring of youth in her step. “You forget your payment.” She dangled a small leather pouch which jingled with the sound of coin.

“Ahem, oh yes. How forgetful of me,” he paused and snatched the pouch offering a weak smile then headed off leaving her with a frown which sat out of place on her now perfect face.

Following the departure of the artist, who promptly disappeared from the district thereafter, Carmine began to come out of her shell. She ventured out to social gatherings and parties again, as when she had been a girl. All her friends, her husband and, in particular, her sister commented what a change (for the better) had come over her. This amused and pleased Carmine; she had not dreamed of such bliss and quietly thanked the mysterious artist.

Months passed by rapidly and Carmine felt herself driven to do more and more with her life. The urgency and immediacy of the youth in her veins frightened and excited her, but the possibilities seemed endless. It was dangerous, she knew it, but she could not control it, and soon she found herself flirting with any man that caught her fancy. Strangely this seemed to excite her further. Occasionally she caught her husband frowning at her from his smoking chair amid the other ‘men of rank’.

Then one day, when her husband was away on business her sister called. She did not think this odd as they had grown closer since her rejuvenation.

“Sister, you are as fresh as a spring flower!” Margarette complimented her.

“Why thank you Margarette,” Carmine replied bowing her head, “but it is you that I have to thank for introducing the artist to me, and so timely before he disappeared.”

“Yes,” Margarette said; she smiled awkwardly.

Carmine felt bold and a little wicked, and could not help but tease her sister a touch, “tell me sister, how goes your hunt for a husband?”

Margarette smouldered beneath her veneer of pleasantness. She got to her feet and approached the painting of her sister which was positioned above the mantlepiece.

Ignoring the question she began, “It really is a superb painting, you must be very happy with it.” Margarette reached up and took the painting down to examine it more closely, her back to Carmine. “You don’t mind if I have a closer look do you?”

Carmine’s voice faltered slightly. “Oh-oh, of course not dearest.”

Margarette held the painting out in front of her and smiled oddly, “magnificent!”

Carmine was feeling quite nervous now and began to edge closer to her sister.

“You seem ill at ease sister?” Margarette spat the words out like a threat.

Surprised, Carmine flinched back.“What?”

“Oh come now sister!” All pretence of niceness now evaporated from Margarette’s voice. “I have wished for this moment for so long.”

Carmine gasped as her sister moved casually towards the fire, holding the painting out so that it began to catch alight at the corner. “You have everything that I wanted.” Her eyes glistened madly in the flickering fire.

“No!” Carmine shrieked as the paint on the canvas began to bubble; her face felt as though it was on fire.

“It was very convenient when that artist appeared. I knew you could not resist the chance to relive your youth; just like that tart Offington. I paid that boy a small fortune to do this painting!” Margarette laughed darkly. ”And, to boot, you have estranged yourself from your husband – I thought I would have to work hard to bring him around when you are gone, but he is already my bed companion! You might have noticed if you were watching him instead chasing the other men of the district!”

Carmine writhed in agony; she felt the blood of an unnatural youth boiling inside her as her fleshed burned.

“Sister!” she gargled through clenched teeth, her flesh flaking away from face, “Yesss, you have outwitted me artfully, but we shall see who makes the finer artwork!”

Carmine, in a last effort, charged forward and embraced her sister in a fiery grip sending both of them backwards into the blazing fire.

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