On July 29, 2020, P.T. Wyant posted at ptwyant.com a Wednesday Words prompt involving a cancelled celebration, a tea cup, a reflection.
This freebie story for my attempt in progress at a steampunk-esque ghost story, A Portrait Is Worth a Thousand Words, was the result…
I held the teacup in my hands, letting their warmth seep into my skin, only to look up.
Fiona had fixed surprisingly sharp green eyes upon me. For the first time, she seemed to be Elizabeth Hartford’s descendent.
“We ought to have a celebration in your honor, the lost Hartford heir.” My cousin tugged at her high lace collar in discomfort. She’d made an attempt to comb her hair, which hung down in wisps from a bun held together by pearl pins. She held her own tea cup in an awkward fashion as if unused to the gesture.
All of this was pretend, playing at being the lady of Hartford Hall. Only Fiona was the lady of Hartford Hall. Why did she seem as guilty as myself?
I glanced at my reflection in the parlor mirror, which captured the burgundy sofa, the chairs with clawed feet, a menacing chest of drawers covered with ancient demons and gods, topped with the fluffy, harmless porcelain figures of a dog, a shepherdess, a boy with long legs exposed by ribboned stockings. I sat amidst all of this on one of the clawed chairs, a silver tea set accompanied by floral china separating Fiona and myself. It took me a moment to recognize the girl in the mirror as myself. Her honey-colored hair held back with a burgundy ribbon, her long velvet skirt, and high-lace collar made her look like she belonged in this room, far more than Fiona did. She held her cup and saucer with more grace than Fiona did, gazing back at me with wide blue eyes filled with shock at my scrutiny, that I would even question her right to be there.
Everything about her was a lie. She was the true fake, not Fiona. I ought to know. I’d created the illusion of her appearance with a friend’s help.
“No need for ceremony,” I said, although I was secretly thrilled at the idea of having party here at Hartford Hall in my honor. “I’m just happy to be here.”
“Oh, good! I’ll cancel the celebration.” Fiona heaved a huge sigh of relief, breasts rising and pressing against the buttons of her blouse. I wondered how long it would take her to notice I didn’t have any. “There isn’t anyone I’d want to invite, nor is there any cause for celebration, no offense.” She took a hasty gulp of tea and put her cup and saucer down. “You’ll find out what I mean soon enough.”
“Am I not welcome here?” I put down my flowered cup, admiring the pattern on the side, the details of petals, the vines, the leaves. I folded my hands in my laps and allowed my gaze to travel over the paintings on the wall; landscapes, flowers, portraits of men, women, and children with melacholy faces. I was guessing the latter was Judith Cross’s work.
One regal, redhaired woman with an uplifted chin and an impatient curl to her lower lip dominated many a canvas, although it was nothing compared to the painting of Elizabeth hanging on the wall on the grand staircase.
“You yourself invited me,” I reminded Fiona with a touch of impatience, perhaps the same impatience Elizaeth showed so often in oils. “I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t, cousin.”
“I was merely the instrument to insure an invitation was issued to you, just as I am a puppet who speaks and acts for the true lady of the house.” Fiona folded her own hands, only to worry at a golden ring with an emerald on her right finger. “In a real way, the Lady Elizabeth lives on in this place. Her spirit dominates every room she once walked in when she was alive. Everyone in Hartford Hall is still under her dominion.”
The poetry of her words struck me, for I could almost hear Elizabeth giving a similar speech.
“It’s a terrible thing, Westerleigh!” Fiona hissed through her fingers. “I’ve lived a lonely life here, one I long to share with other kinswomen, only there aren’t any. At least I didn’t believe there were any until I found you.” Those fingers trembled, the emerald glittering. “A part of me wishes I hadn’t.”
“Why?” I asked with completely honesty. “I’m happy to share this burden with you. I’ve been fascinated with Elizabeth for most of my life. To live in an estate where her spirit lives on is a dream come true.”
“That dream could become a nightmare.” Fiona lowered her hands. “The Lady Elizabeth is fascinating, yes, but she’s also dangerous.” She laid a finger against her cup, not picking it up. “She meddled in all sorts of things she shouldn’t have.”
“That’s what’s so fascinating about her.” I leaned forward, forgetting caution in my enthusiasm. “At a time when most women feared being called witches, she made no attempt to hide she dabbled in magic. She ruled Hartford Hall without a husband, even as a figurehead. She took another woman, a female artist as her lover. She patronized Judith Cross’s artistic career and they lived together in this hall as a couple. The courage, the sheer never she must have had…it takes my breath away. I can only dream of having such strength.”
I paused, realized my hands were trembling. I knotted them and laid them in my lap. My natural timidity had gotten the better of me, the fear which made me hide behind books, away from other people, allowing only a few friends, like Yuri to get close to me. Yuri was different, Yuri was an artist, even if Yuri didn’t always understand why I lived in the past through the journals, poetry, and writing of Elizabeth Hartford. They were more vibrant to me than anything in the modern world.
“I can see already that she’s going to like you.” Fiona looked me up and down with something almost like pity. “She enjoys the company of those who reflect the ideal of her within innocent eyes.”
“You speak of her as if she were still alive.” A strange shiver ran down my spine. “Does her presence linger in Hartford Hall that strongly? Do you believe her ghost haunts this place?”
“She haunts this place in many ways. You’ll discover that for yourself.” Fiona sighed and sank back into the depths of her burgundy armchair. “After spending time in her library, sleeping in her bed, you’ll see and feel just how much she lingers.”
“I’ll be working in her library?” My heart skipped a beat. “Sleeping in her bed?”
“If you’d rather not, something can be arranged-“ Fiona began, only to stop, stare at me, and sigh. “You can’t wait.”
“To say that I’m honored is putting it mildly.” I tried to fold my hands, tried to put my excitement into coherent words. “I cannot say how much it means to me, to live, breathe, work, and sleep in the same places Elizabeth did.” I lifted my knotted fingers to press them to my breast, realizing belatedly I was drawing attention to that part of my body. “When do I begin? What am I to do?”
“As I said in the invitation, this is a job as much as anything else. You’re to read all of the Lady Elizabeth’s journals, correspondance, anything she put down on paper. You’re welcome, no, encouraged to write down any of your own impressions in response.” Fiona heaved another sigh. “You’re offered the lady’s bedchamber, encouraged to wear some of her clothing.” My cousin wiped her brow with an impatient lack of grace. “Much of that clothing is antique and dated. These are legacy requests from Elizabeth to her female descendants. How faithfully you follow them is up to you.”
Female descendents. This wasn’t a request from Elizabeth to me, simply to whom Fiona assumed me to be. Not refusing was the only was I could prove that I, too, was worthy of such a request.
“I’ll do everything not to disappoint her.” My own voice came out hushed, breathless, and hopefully feminine. “I promise.”
“That’s impossible.” Fiona put a cold edge into her words that made the chill return, raising the hairs on the back of my arms. “Everybody disappoints her. Remember that.”
She locked her green eyes with mine. For a moment we just stared at each other, the gravity of her words sinking in.
I should have kept some of that gravity with me, to steady me as I plunged into my idol’s life. I was too giddy to do so. My giddiness returned when the moment passed. Here I was at Hartford Hall, being offered an intimate peek at Elizabeth Hartford, a chance to read and comment on everything she’d ever written. To press against my naked skin the gown she’d worn, to don a piece of her. To lie where she’d once lain her head, her active mind keeping her awake late into the night. Perhaps the ghosts her thoughts, her ideas lingered upon her pillow as well as upon the page.
It was a dream come true in every sense. Alas, too often dreams turn into nightmares. Mine were no exception.