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Gainsborough's Revenge


The woman stares from the painting, lids slightly lowered, yet still a direct gaze. There is something in the way she focuses, something that forces the viewer to consider her state, her lowered eyes and pinched mouth. She is not a conventional beauty, perhaps not a beauty at all, her face expressionless, as if she were asleep or in a trance, trapped in her slender frame. Perhaps she is about to ask a question, or reveal a secret, not necessarily one that would benefit the hearer to learn. She is a woman of her time, which is to say, the late eighteenth century.

Richard Drake wasn't supposed to be at the Frick, staring at paintings of women from another century—he was supposed to be at work. After taking the subway downtown, he tentatively made his way into the conference room, a good twenty minutes late. It didn't matter—no one else had been on time, the meeting was just starting. The young woman who was the traffic coordinator was in the process of reeling off a series of numbered codes that represented different projects. With each number, she offered a brief synopsis of what needed to be done, then a date for when the job was due. Much of the time, the work description and due date were wildly inaccurate, and this had to be straightened out with the account supervisor, the writers, and the art director. No one wanted to be there.

*      *      *

He felt himself fading, as if all the blood had rushed from his head, as if the parquet floor were giving way beneath him. With a last, unconscious effort, he pulled himself from the painting and walked rapidly from the room, nearly running over a couple of Italian tourists and their sullen teenage daughter. He walked from the lobby straight to the sidewalk, took a deep breath, and let it out very, very slowly. His steps felt light on the pavement, and his sense of balance wasn't right. Still, he pushed on to the corner, made it across Fifth Avenue, and sat on a bench against the park wall.

The subject's name was Mrs. Hatchett, one of those curious English names that partake not so much of onomatopoeia as of a blatant reference to a physical object or function. Perhaps her husband's ancestors had been woodsmen. The Hatchetts appear to have been friends of Gainsborough and to have shared his musical interests. Elizabeth Hatchett, née Collick, was a more than competent pianist, a pupil of Clementi. She married Charles Hatchett, gentleman scientist and amateur inventor. The picture was painted in 1786, when Gainsborough and his family had long left Bath and settled in London. This was one of his last portraits, painted two years before he died. Mrs. Hatchett would have been twenty years old at the time and recently married.

Four o'clock now, the sun still bright but the wind picking up. Too chilly to sit, Richard rose from the bench, no longer dizzy. He walked uptown, not sure where he was headed.

*      *      *

If he had picked up a woman, where was she? The bathroom, no doubt. He looked around, but saw only one door, which was secured with a relatively flimsy wooden latch. There was a dank smell he couldn't exactly place, something like wet or decaying wood. And then another smell, far worse, the stench of excrement. He checked the bed, but it was clean. Then he noticed a bed pan down on the floor against the wall, which utterly puzzled him.

A sense of terror slipped over him just as consciousness had a few moments earlier when he had first raised his head. Was this another dream? He couldn't imagine that it was—it didn't feel like a dream, but if his recent experience had taught him anything it was that the line between dreams and everyday life was fluid at best. If his or anyone else's sense of self was by nature subjective, then dreams and reality couldn't immediately be differentiated by the sensations they induced. And he wasn't particularly happy with the sensations he was presently experiencing—vertigo, nausea, and a feeling of emotional displacement that was slipping towards panic. At this point, the worst thing possible happened—there was a knock at the door, a feeble knock, but a knock all the same. Richard said nothing, but sat there upright in bed, unsure what to do.

And with another feeble knock, there was a voice:

"Would sir be pleased if I should enter?"

A male voice, strangulated, a strange sort of accent. Richard's first inclination was to shout out, "No, sir would not be pleased if you should enter," but he refrained from doing so. Instead, he rose, realizing that he was wearing a white shirt but no pants, crossed the room all in one motion, pulled on a pair of breeches that were lying on the floor, and hurled the door open. The visual image he faced made no immediate sense to him. An emaciated, scruffy man, stooped, of indeterminate age, was standing directly outside the door.

"What do you want?" The words slipped out, somewhat more abruptly and forcefully than he had intended. The man stared back at him, sheepishly, perplexed.

"If it would please sir, should I wash and shave him?"

As disconcerting as this request might have been, Richard at last perceived a pattern he could latch on to, a shimmer of logic here. The man was a servant, standing outside his door with a pan of presumably cold water and a none-too-clean but nevertheless sharp straight-edge razor.

*      *      *

"Who is she, this Mrs. Hatchett? And where is her husband?"

"Where indeed? Her husband is an inventor of sorts, one of those gentlemen who having inherited a fortune proceed to conduct all manner of chemical experiments. I believe he has even received some token of recognition from the Royal Society for his efforts."

"And so..."

"And so, he is too preoccupied to notice that his young wife, a charming pianist and pupil of Clementi's, has turned quite mad, whether through neglect or through some innate defect."

"Although a madwoman, she has an impressive knowledge of the French language."

"You must have realized, Drake, that much of what she said was pure nonsense, in French or in any other language. 'L'heure de notre temps'? What could that possibly signify?"

Richard was about to remark that the phrase had a certain poetical ring to it, but he didn't think his companion would appreciate the comment. Instead, Jodrell addressed him:

"As it is Drake, I have another engagement. I hope to have the pleasure of your company on another occasion."

"Indeed sir, it has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

"You may find me at my club most afternoons." With this, Jodrell made his way through the crowd and departed.

Surveying the room, Richard felt uneasy. Without the other man as his guide, he had no sense of how to behave or whether he should approach any of the assembled guests. He would have liked to have studied the paintings on the wall more closely, but he didn't want to draw attention to himself. He waited a minute or so, then left the place.

The scene outside made him pull up short—a wide avenue with a few carriages heading east or west, several gentlemen and ladies on foot. It was still daylight, that silver gray late afternoon light that tended to linger just for a moment. He walked past the iron railings of the house he had been in, past the row of posts that separated the walkway from the street, still in a state of shock. He wasn't sure how long the scene would last or by what contrivance he had been privileged to witness it, but he knew it was as real as anything he had ever known. This thought stayed with him, even as the scene started to fade. He attempted to hold it in his mind's eye, to commit it to memory, but that was not possible.

When he awoke, it was to a gray morning, not yet seven o'clock. There was a woman next to him stirring in her sleep, a woman he had only met the night before. He thought about this, his head throbbing as he stood in an attempt to find a glass of water to subdue his thirst. Who was to say she was any more or less real than the dream he had just had, a dream of another time and place? What he really wanted to do was to sleep again.

*      *      *

Jodrell nearly spat out his drink. "Gainsborough's daughters are madwomen. At least one is fully mad, and the other eccentric in the extreme. One would do better to converse with the family cat." He paused for a moment. "There is, however, one other possibility."

"And what is that?"

"Not a what but a whom. Gainsborough's nephew, who bears the inauspicious name Gainsborough Dupont, is a rather outré and dissipated character, but he has the advantage of having served as his uncle's sole assistant over the years. Rumor has it that he knows the whereabouts of a number of paintings, the existence of which Gainsborough's widow is completely ignorant."

At this Richard visibly brightened, for until then he had been tempted to surmise that Jodrell was simply a man who enjoyed the sound of his own voice more than anything else.

"Where might we find this paragon of the visual arts?"

"Scarcely a paragon, I fear." With this, Jodrell smirked. "We are most likely to find him in a tavern of the lowest sort."

© 2013 Steven Fraccaro