I am not — have never been — given to flights of the fantastical. To be sure, from time to time, like many of my contemporaries, I have been enthralled by Poe’s tales and those of Lovecraft and Hodgson. But they were fictions, diversions from the mundane, nothing more. Certainly, I never for a moment believed these entertainments were attempts to render true experiences.
Yet, now I have the gravest reason to doubt that judgment, for I myself have been witness to an event of such extremes that it cannot be counted as anything but lying beyond the precincts of the natural world. And because it is so far from reality as normal men understand it, I can only confide the particulars in this journal.
The story begins shortly after Christmas last when my dear friend Hugh Fletcher was having tea of an afternoon in an Oxford Street cafe not far from Cavendish Square Gardens. He and I had met while both at Eton and become virtually inseperable mates. We maintained our close bond after graduation when my path took me to the London School of Economics while he pursued his dream of studying art. The choices fit our personalities — I, the pragmatic, materialistic qq one; Hugh, much the romantic, fond of poetry and the serendipitous. And, I should say, a painter who possessed genuine talent. At the age of twenty-six, he was beginning to gain a modest reputation in the city for the quality of his work, which was on offer at a small gallery in Vauxhall.
On the day in question, as Hugh recounted it to me, while having a second cup of tea and reading from a newly purchased edition of Shelley, his attention was drawn to a young woman who had risen from her table in a far corner of the cafe and was preparing to leave.
“She was singularly striking,” he told me, “tall, ivory-skinned, with great, dark tresses cascading around her face, encircled with the lush collar of a rich fur coat. It would have been sufficient,” he went on, “just to savor her unrivaled beauty as she passed a few feet away, but as she neared the door, she turned and locked her smoke-grey eyes with mine. It lasted only an instant, but the effect was profound.”
The woman then exited the cafe into the chill late afternoon as snow was just beginning to fall upon the city. Hugh said he did not hesitate a moment, but leaped from his seat, shrugged into his chesterfield and rushed into the street.
“I could not explain my actions, save that I knew I must not allow her to get away.” Within a block, as he weaved rapidly among the sidewalk throng, he had caught sight of her. And as he neared her at a corner, though he was behind and she had not seen him, she stopped and turned.
“It was uncanny,” he told me. “With certitude, I sensed that she knew of my approach, that she expected it.”
To be sure, Hugh was taken somewhat aback, further unsettled by the way those eyes of hers bored into him, seemingly able to discern his innermost thoughts. He stammered an introduction and expressed his fervent desire that she agree to sit for him while he painted her portrait.
Her name, she replied, was Lizbeta: and at first, she demurred, explaining that she was not a professional model and that her time in London was limited before she must return to her native Romania. But Hugh was insistent, pressing his case and proferring one of his business cards, which she accepted.
“I returned to my flat in a fever,” he said, “and spent the night unable to banish her from my thoughts. And when I fell at last into fitful sleep, it was she who dominated my dreams.”
The obsession persisted upon his awakening, depriving him of an appetite, prompting him to pace nervously about his atelier, unable to concentrate on finishing a modest commissioned still life he had begun.
At precisely 10:00, as Big Ben tolled the hour, Lizbeta rang his studio bell. Hugh welcomed her with delight, noting that in the morning sunlight spilling into the room, she was even more ravishing than she had appeared the day before.
“Although she still insisted she was an unworthy subject,” Hugh related, “she had found me flattering and persuasive enough to agree to a sitting. But, of necessity, it would be a single sitting. She had no choice, she said, having been summoned to return to Bucharest the following day to deal with pressing family affairs.”
With little time to lose, Hugh hastily arranged his studio, positioning his easel and mounting a freshly gessoed canvas upon it. He bade Lizbeta to recline on a divan of brocade and mahogany, posing her in such a way that the sunlight brought out the finest qualities of her lustrous hair and perfect complexion.
“I knew that I had but a few hours with her, so I rushed with a speed I did not know I possessed to block in the essentials of the painting and begin rendering her likeness.”
And paint he did, using every available ray of light until the late afternoon shadows deepened and Lizbeta made ready to leave. Hugh expressed his dismay at her departure, so smitten had he become.
“I inquired when she would return to London so that I might present her with the painting. She did not know, so I asked if she might leave a shipping address. She promised to send it as soon as her business in Bucharest was completed.”
And with that, Hugh said, she turned her mesmerizing grey eyes on him a final time and left.
Now commences the strangest part of this tale. Hugh immediately returned to the canvas, feverishly working his brushes and oils, attempting to reclaim from the memory of Lizbeta each curve, every contour, line and shadow, the very essence of her extraordinary beauty. Using what lamplight he had at hand, he pressed on into the night, until exhaustion overtook him and he slept.
The next morning he arose at first light and without hesitation, returned to his obsession. Since I hadn’t spoken with him in several days, I rang him up at the noon hour just to make idle conversation. Instead, he implored me to come to his atelier immediately to view his latest work. There was in his voice a tone of urgency such that I left my office at once.
When I arrived, Hugh barely took the time to let me into his studio before he was at his canvas again. And as he painted, he recounted the whole story of his encounter with Lizbeta. It took but one glance at the woman’s image to understand why he said it had been “branded on my soul.” Her face and figure were perfection and her eyes possessed a depth of power and mystery that was mesmerizing, indelible.
But it was not only his desire to capture the woman’s every nuance that was driving him forward. He could not account for it, he said, but his paint was thickening, becoming more viscous and hard to handle.
“When I apply it to the canvas, it pulls at the brush — more so, it seems, with every passing hour — as if it doesn’t want to let go. I’ve never encountered this before, but it is imperative that I complete the painting as soon as possible.”
It was clear that his distraction was total, so I took my leave with a wish to see the portrait once he’d completed it.
The rest of my day was crowded — appointments through the afternoon, a dinner engagement with a client that led to brandy and cigars at my club. By the time I reached the door of my apartments, it was almost midnight. And no sooner had I entered than the telephone began to ring. It was Hugh, frantic.
“You must come at once!”
“But the hour . . . , ” I protested.
“At once — do you hear me?!”
Quickly, I rushed to the street, hailed a cab and was delivered presently to Hugh’s studio. The trip was short, but it gave me enough time to conjure dark thoughts about my friend’s obsession and his grip on reality.
When I arrived I found the door to his atelier unlocked, which I thought was odd, so I entered with a degree of caution, calling his name repeatedly but with no response. I could see very little because the only light in the room was provided by a floor lamp Hugh had moved beside his easel, which was positioned in such a way that the back of the canvas was turned toward the door. With my trepidation growing, I walked slowly forward. Perhaps, I thought, Hugh was so absorbed in his work that he neither heard me enter nor call out to him. But as I neared the easel, what caught my eye was not my friend. Instead, beyond the edge of the painting in the pool of light thrown by the lamp were his palette and one of his brushes, both gleaming with wet paint, lying on the floor. They did not appear to have been placed on the parquet but rather dropped or cast down.
My heart by now was pounding in my chest. I fought against my worst fears overwhelming me as I stepped around the easel and turned my full attention to the canvas.
Now, you who know me have always judged me a sober, eminently rational individual. So, too, do I consider myself. I ask you to weigh what I recount next with that in mind.
I was aghast at what I beheld. At first, my eyes refused to believe, but there was no denying what was in front of me. It was the figure of a woman in an emerald-green gown reclining on the very divan that sat a few feet from me, just as I’d seen Hugh painting hours before. I say the figure of a woman because this was not Hugh’s careful rendering of the ravishing Lizbeta, but a grotesquerie — a withered, gnarled crone whose grey hair hung in matted ropes, framing a face, shrunken and deeply creased. Her mouth was open in a hellish grin, baring teeth blackened with rot. And the astonishing eyes that my friend had found so compelling were now but sightless sockets.
But what was most horrifying, what caused me nearly to faint dead away, was that held tightly in the outstretched grasp of this corpse was the figure of Hugh himself! Against all reason and the laws of God and Nature, there was my friend clutched firmly in the embrace of two stick-like arms and bony fingers that curled around him more akin to the long talons of a bird of prey. His countenance was that of a man overwhelmed by hysteria — eyes wide with anguish, mouth open in a plea for salvation, and one arm thrust out towards me, fingers extended to their extremity. My mind reeled. If only I could find it within myself do something — anything — to help him!
At that moment I hit upon an idea. It was improbable, yes, but no less than what I saw upon the canvas. Perhaps, I thought, if I could paint out the hideous figure of the woman, its power over Hugh would be broken and he would be restored to the world. Swiftly, I retrieved the palette and paintbrush from the floor. I gripped the brush and dipped it into a thick pile of a deep blue paint. I recalled Hugh’s description of how the pigment had grown thicker, and I noticed this myself straight away. As I neared the tip of the brush to the canvas, to a spot over the hag’s face, I had the sensation of an electric shock course through my fingers and hand, and the bristles were pulled as if by a magnet onto the painting’s surface. Reflexively, I jerked the brush away, though the tingling in my hand lingered. I thought this a passing strange occurrence, but I concluded it must have been a momentary episode of static electricity and nothing more, so I again lowered the brush toward the painting.
This time the effect was more pronounced. As the tip of the bristles came into contact with the canvas, not only did a sharp tingling ripple into my hand but extended part way up my arm. At the same moment, I beheld a large globule of the thick paint flow up the handle of the brush until it touched my fingertips. Again, there was the sensation of a magnet’s pull, this instance stronger than the first. And this time, with amazement, not only did the paint continue to ooze upon my fingers, but I saw the tip of the paintbrush bristles actually penetrate the surface of the canvas!
Horrified, I used my left hand to tear myself free of the force which was growing in power. Deeply shaken, I realized what Hugh’s fate had been and that I dare not risk a third attempt to alter the painting. And, I can confide in these pages, I was overcome with raw fear, so much so that I hurled the palette and brush to the floor, and, with a long, wrenching backward look over my shoulder at the image of my friend frozen in his eternal torment, I turned and, God help me, I ran!
Nick Young is an award-winning retired journalist whose career included twenty years as a CBS News correspondent. His writing has appeared in the San Antonio Review, The Green Silk Journal, Short Story Town, CafeLit Magazine, Fiery Scribe Review, Sein und Werden, Typeslash Review, 50-Word Stories, Sandpiper Magazine, Pigeon Review and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.