Constructive criticism will be much appreciated; it will be received with gratitude but with no attempt at justifications...
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent
“When has your hair grown so dark, child?” Lady Martinet said, stroking my luscious curls. “You’re turning into a great beauty, my dear.”
“Don’t you find she looks like Antoinette more and more every day?” Lady Wetherill said, in her voice that resembled a bird’s trill on a spring morning.
By chance, we had stopped right underneath the portrait of this great-great-aunt they were evoking and Lady Wetherill turned up her round wrinkled face to consider the painting. Antoinette’s smile had a contemptuous quality that afternoon, as if she were expressing her disapproval at such an unworthy comparison.
I shuddered and pulled my woollen shawl tighter around my shoulders. Did she shake her head or was it just a play of light from the stained-glass windows? I had always believed she was beautiful and had felt a deep fascination for her, but the portrait in the hall also intimidated me. It seemed to me the painter had hidden a whiff of something in her perfect features, something I could not pinpoint, so subtle that you had to call it an illusion, yet undeniably present.
I smiled, and curtsied, and hurried down the steps to the garden, followed by the two old ladies.
Throughout the tea, I couldn’t take my mind off Lady Wetherill’s remark. Had they known her sometime in their distant childhood? Could it be that they remembered her?
I longed to hear a more intellectual opinion for I was quite saturated with what the cook, Mrs. Adair, or the housekeeper, Mrs. Alexander, mumbled about her, just before they crossed themselves with frantic assiduity. They had experienced quite a scare when I first asked who the woman in the portrait was, and frowned at me every time I mentioned her name again as if by chance.
Their knowledge was hearsay and old wives’ tales, woven with superstitious fears. Even their grandmothers, who had served Antoinette, were young girls at the time she died. Yet their convictions were immutable. A wicked witch, they called her. A murderess, they whispered, crossing themselves again for the safety of their souls, and for the souls of the many suitors who have seemingly disappeared into thin air. I absorbed these stories with wide eyes and eager ears, by the kitchen hearth, not really believing half of them.
She had been my great-grandfather’s older sister. The family chronicle only mentioned her briefly – a twig on the family tree cut early and long forgotten. I knew she had died of typhoid fever more than seventy years ago, at twenty-nine, unmarried, in the prime of her beauty. It was good punishment in Mrs. Adair’s opinion, for all her wicked deeds.
But in the portrait in the hall – an early masterpiece of the famous painter F. – she was alive. She was the embodiment of beauty, of superior self-assurance. I sought to be like her.
To my disappointment, I had no chance to enquire further about Antoinette; when my grandmother’s other guests arrived, any meaningful conversation was drowned in the usual torrent of frivolities.
I endured them graciously, just enough to fulfil my social duties, then hurried back inside the humid stone walls. I had in there a well-guarded secret. One that gnawed at my curiosity and always left it unsatisfied. My secret was in the highest attic, where bats hung from rotten beams. It lay hidden by heavy cobwebs, and forgotten bed sheets hung to dry, and dust thick as two fingers.
To be continued...