Wednesday, 8 April 2009
Portrait of a Lady
I had not been in the old house all that long when I came across the portrait. It showed a middle-aged woman in black with lace at her collar and her hat. I assume it was a hat. A broad ribbon showed itself from the bottom of the hat and at the front of her shoulder. She looked as if she was putting on a 'portrait' face. Not miserable or grumpy, just formal with the possibility of a smile despite the very severe parting of her hair at the front. What shocked me most was the state of the canvas. It appeared that someone had deliberately made cuts to it. These were not holes caused by accident, one at the right side especially looked as if someone had used a knife to cut the painting.
I did not know who the woman in the painting was, there was no title on the frame and the back had a paper label that mentioned a gallery where it might have been exhibited since it had been painted. I knew nothing of her.
As usual in such matters, I turned to Miss Creevy from next door. Miss Creevy was very old and very spritely. She was short, thin and had something of a sparrow about her. She was fond of chintz and flowers. Her garden was a riot of colour and foliage most of the time. In winter it was more foliage, but she did not care for a garden with a mere lawn in it. Her eyes were dark and searching and noticed details that most overlooked. When I asked her about the painting, she frowned for a moment, concentrating and questioned me on the details. After my answers she seemed to settle comfortably into herself and the frown was replaced with a smile.
"Come along in and I'll tell you about it. A sad business, but there, that was the times," she remarked.
I had time, so I followed her into her house and was led into a room that seemed as if the garden had decided to take root indoors. Chintz curtains of cream and roses vied with small clusters of bouquets on the wallpaper. Strangely the effect was cheerful rather than overwhelming. There was the faint scent of roses, which I knew she loved and was pleasant. She bid me sit down next to her cat Strangeways who was curled up at one side of a comfortable sofa. He raised a somewhat sleepy head and blinked slowly at me before going back to sleep. I stroked him just to be polite and friendly, but let him sleep.
Miss Creevy's long life was put down to never having had children, though it was rumoured that she had been quite wild in her youth. Looking at the short thin woman who brought in a pot of tea I could not quite see it somehow. She poured the tea in silence and offered me sugar and milk. Taking her cup in her hand she sat back and smiled indulgently at Strangeways before giving a little sigh.
"Well now," she said, "Your painting."
"That was Mrs Yeatman who's daughter is old Mrs Lanningham in the high street. She, Mrs Yeatman was a lovely woman, very warm-hearted. But she was led by her heart and it got her into trouble. In her youth, she had worked as a clerk in an office. Then Mr Yeatman took over that business, I forget what it was. He was a tough businessman. Mind you, I don't mean he was crooked or anything like that. Just tough to do business with, that's all. She was efficient and kindly. She was never a thin woman, poor thing, but she was cheerful and that can count for a lot. At first, when Mr Yeatman took over the business he was in the office quite a lot. Well the staff were quite glad that he hadn't got rid of them, which he could have. They were nice to him because he'd been good to them - was how they looked at it.
Evelyn, that's Mrs Yeatman liked him but was more fond of a tall thin artist and poet living in Temperly Street. The artist adored her. He saw in her that kindness and warmth and her gentleness. She could be very gentle at times. Then she'd tell herself it wasn't businesslike and make up for it. She wasn't cruel, that wasn't her way, but she was tough. That was what appealed to Mr Yeatman. Well it happened that Mr Yeatman kept coming into the office and started to pay attention to Evelyn and how she did things. He liked her. After a while that like turned to love and he offered to marry her.
Now she didn't want to upset him; he'd been good with the business and the staff and she genuinely liked him. But she longed to be with the artist in Temperly Street. She had a bit of the romantic in her, surprisingly because she wasn't all like that most of the time. But she reasoned it all out and realised that she'd be better off if she married Mr Yeatman. Besides, for all his passionate declarations, the artist had never got around to proposing to her so the got it into her head that he didn't care for her all that much then.
So she accepted Mr Yeatman and sent a letter to the artist to tell him that she was getting married and hoped that they could still be friends if nothing more. Well, you know the artistic temperament don't you, being an art historian and all that. He didn't want to be friends, he wanted her for himself. I have never understood why some men think that a woman can be owned. I'm sure nobody ever owned me," said Miss Creevy.
I was quite sure that nobody had ever owned Miss Creevy either. She was like a living flame and anyone who'd dared to try and own her would have simply got burned. I sipped my tea and said nothing.
"Well anyway, the artist saw her twice before she was married, but she was resolute and insisted that she was going to marry Mr Yeatman. The artist went away distraught and buried himself in his work. Evelyn became Mrs Yeatman and much later when she was in her fifties I think, a gentleman showed up who was plump and comfortable. He wondered if he might paint Mrs Yeatman's portrait. Mr Yeatman was delighted at the suggestion and commissioned the plump gentleman to paint a portrait of his wife. The portrait was fair enough. He did not flatter her, but he showed her as she was. He then wrote an intimate letter to her reminding her of the love he had once borne for her and how he still loved her. Mrs Yeatman would have put the letter on the fire, but being honest, she showed her husband and told him that she intended to write a letter to the artist and tell him not to call again.
The artist replied to that letter. He said that if he could not have her then nobody should love her again. From that day forward, she fell very ill. She did not die as the doctors expected, but remained very ill and did lose weight, rather a lot in fact. Mr Yeatman went to see the artist and confronted him. But the artist was unrepentant and said that she was cursed and would never be well. Mr Yeatman was beside himself with grief, but being also furious with the artist, he took a knife to the portrait of his wife that the artist had done. For you see, he loved her more than any painting of her. To his surprise, she began to recover and only after she was fully well again did Mr Yeatman read of the sudden death of an artist gentleman. There was a picture in the newspaper I believe, though Mr Yeatman destroyed it before his wife could read it. He was afraid she might go to the funeral and be cursed somehow again."