The Portrait: Part Three
It was nighttime before Mrs. Prenderghast’s Alabriss-drawn carriage pulled into the courtyard. By this time, the avid collector was finished fuming about her humiliation; rather, she was quiet, as she was quite tired from the day’s affairs. As Percival opened the door for her, she stepped out into the cool night air and inhaled deeply.
She gazed around. Floating amidst the finely trimmed hedges and colorful flowerbeds of the courtyard were Lightmites, each of which emitted a pale yellow glow. It might have been winter elsewhere, but it was always summertime in her chateau by the lake. This thought slightly cheered her up, as she really felt like weeping. The day’s injustices mounted upon her.
“Percival, tend to the day’s affairs, would you? I am going to bed.”
“Will do, Madam,” Percival said with a nod, shutting the door to the carriage. He motioned to the driver, who departed for the stables.
Mrs. Prenderghast looked about the courtyard, almost warily, before entering her home. The air inside was crisp and gentle upon her face. She smiled slightly, gazing around her foyer. Viewing the beginnings of her extensive collection, she began to feel a bit better. This feeling, however, was immediately dispelled when her eyes fell upon Arnold Franz’s The Noil of Altador.
She was once again livid, her thoughts of exhaustion cast aside, her mind burning with angry thoughts. How could Isabella do that to her? To build her hopes up like that, only to tear them down? She was a cruel old witch! All the glory of Arnold Franz could never be contained in her home, not without The Scorchio and the Puppyblew. A growl formed deep within her throat.
She was about to issue a curse against Isabella for the umpteenth time that day when she heard the little voice in the back of her head.
You got what you had coming, Alicia.
“No, I did not! I didn’t deserve this!” Mrs. Prenderghast yelled, snatching a small effigy of a faerie Anubis from a nearby coffee table. She felt like hurling it at the wall. She realized the madness of such a notion, and, regaining her senses, set it back down. She took a deep breath to calm herself.
“Madam, are you all right?” Percival asked, concerned. She did not turn to face him.
“I am fine,” she retorted. “What are you standing around here for, Percival? Did not I ask you to tend to the day’s affairs?”
“Well, Madam, I was just wondering what you wanted to do with the painting.”
Mrs. Prenderghast turned around to look at her Quiggle servant. Indeed, Percival clutched the covered painting – the portrait of Elise. The Aisha was able to glance at it calmly – so calmly, in fact, she was mystified. How could she stare at it without cursing it? After all, it symbolized every wrong against her, every wound that had been inflicted upon her pride.
“Oh. Put it in the storeroom, I suppose.”
Ordinarily, she would have ordered it to be burned. However, even Alicia Prenderghast was not so cold as to have the last remnant of her niece scoured from the earth. Sighing, she headed through the parlor and up the grand staircase to her bedroom.
She passed countless paintings, of which she had taken great lengths to procure – The Fruit of the Brain Tree by Madeleine Ashby; The Dance of the Light Faeries by Thestia the Insightful; Mystery Island at Night in the Summertime by Justinian Dresden – before finally stepping into her bedroom. It was a large room, tiled in fine-cut marble. Her bed was crafted of lacquered mahogany, and dressed in the finest silks. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, glittering, casting a thousand myriads of light upon the floor.
By all means, her bedroom was incredibly luxurious, and fit for a queen. Even so, the distraught Mrs. Prenderghast was comforted little by it tonight. She dressed quietly into her nightgown, and sat upon her bed. She felt a little bit better by staring at some other entries in her collection, which hung upon the pristine walls of the room – The Snowager in Slumber, by Juliet Frost, struck her as particularly soothing. Finally, she lay down to rest.
She could not get to sleep, despite the fact that she was indeed quite fatigued. As such, she rang the silver bell at her bedside table. In moments, two maids had entered the room, and stood before her bed, awaiting orders.
“Close the curtains,” she commanded.
“Yes, Madam,” they spoke in unison, and complied with her request. The room was flooded with darkness.
Mrs. Prenderghast lay there for another hour, unable to find sleep, though she so desperately sought it. She felt more alone than she ever had before. The day had been humiliating. She, Alicia Prenderghast, had been rendered mortal, before commoners. It was certain that they laughed at her, at her misfortune.
A tear slid down her cheek. Self-pity made her even drowsier; within minutes, she was asleep.
She dreamt of nothing, and awoke quietly the next morning. It was an hour or so past dawn; she reckoned it was at least four hours until noon. Yawning, she arose from her bed. Once at her wardrobe, which was almost as expansive as her art collection, she selected for herself a burgundy gown to wear for the day. After ringing the silver bell, she had the maids she summoned dress her, and then fetch her jewelry box. She put on a golden necklace, set with a ruby – a gift from her late husband – and a single gold ring.
She scanned herself in the mirror. She felt immeasurably better from the night’s rest. Sure, her art collection would never be complete – but at least she would look ravishing. That thought was a better cure for her melancholy than anything so far, so she continued to think of it as she headed out into the hallway, and down into the dining hall to eat breakfast.
The second Mrs. Prenderghast left her bedroom, she froze.
Elise was staring out at her from her portrait, which hung on the wall facing her bedroom door.
Her niece’s burning eyes captivated her, and she felt rooted to the spot. She could do nothing but gape helplessly, unable to lift a finger, unable to do anything. Finally, she broke the hold Elise had upon her, and let out a shattering scream. It carried throughout the whole house – in a matter of seconds, three servants stood at her side, alarmed by her cry.
“Why is that here?” she shrieked, simultaneously pointing at and turning away from the portrait. “I said to put it in the storeroom! Are you all idiots? Why am I surrounded by morons? Why can’t you just do as I ask? And where in the name of Fyora and all things good and gracious is Percival? Find him!”
The servants gazed over at each other, generally confused by this outburst; finally, they retreated to do as their mistress had asked. Mrs. Prenderghast found herself unable to face the portrait. Instead, she stared down the hallway. Even so, she could not get rid of the feeling that she was being watched – no, stared at. She knew exactly where the sensation was originating, and it did not calm her one bit.
“Percival!” she screamed as the Quiggle approached, wide-eyed. “Why did you not heed my request? Are you that stupid? Why did you hang this up? Did you do it to taunt me, you, you—!”
“Madam!” Percival exclaimed, falling to one knee. “I did no such thing!”
“Look at me when you speak to me!” Mrs. Prenderghast demanded, her voice wrathful, her gaze merciless. Percival stared up at her, looking quite fearful and unlike himself. Mrs. Prenderghast knew, the second she looked into his frightened eyes, that he was innocent.
“I promise, Madam, I did no such—”
“Find whoever did,” Mrs. Prenderghast snarled, her voice taking on a cold and unforgiving tone. “Find them, and bring them to me, that I might deal with them personally.”
Percival nodded. “As you wish, Madam,” he said, bowed courteously, and departed. Mrs. Prenderghast stared at the marble tiles beneath her feet as he did so – still unable to face Elise, she left as well.
The dining hall was very wide, and completely empty, save the long table and various pieces of exquisite furniture. Scarlet drapes lined either side of the tall windows, which cast pearly light on the floor of the room. The walls were rich and dark, crafted of the finest Brightvale wood. An enormous portrait of Taelia hung on one side of the room – another work of Thestia the Insightful. At the other was a spacious fireplace.
The table was dressed in gold silk and topped with platters of steaming foods from all across Neopia. Bowls of exotic Mystery Island fruits were also on display, holding bounties of colorful produce. Even so, Mrs. Prenderghast did not feel much like eating. She ate some cooked eggs, a wedge of her favorite Meridellian cheese, and a slice of teal juppie. Afterwards, she batted her lip with her napkin, and departed the table, feeling quite unsatisfied.
Percival was waiting for her in the hallway. “Madam,” he began, “you seem to be very upset today—”
“Do I?” Mrs. Prenderghast snarled, eyes flaring with anger. “Well, aren’t you the perceptive one!”
Taken slightly aback by her bitter sarcasm, Percival warily continued.
“I think you should go do something relaxing. Perhaps you would let Jennifer soothe you with her harp? Or perhaps you can go take a stroll by the lakeside?”
“There is one thing I want to do, Percival,” Mrs. Prenderghast stated very slowly, each word layered in frost, “and that is to find and punish the fool who dared to hang that portrait before my bedroom door.”
“As... you wish, Madam,” Percival said. He bowed, and then departed.
Mrs. Prenderghast preoccupied herself by reordering the affairs of the household. She spent several hours reading books on botany in the library before ordering the chief gardener to lessen the amount of ivy in the garden, and to plant more roses. She did this only to give herself a purpose, for she had no intention to spend the day fuming over who hung up the portrait.
Three hours past noon, Percival approached her while she was reading a biography of Thetis, a distinguished Maraquan sculptress, on a lounge chair in the parlor. She stared up at him, rage smoldering in her green eyes.
“Well,” she snapped, “did you find the culprit?”
“I have found a suspect, Madam,” Percival responded, though somewhat unconfidently. “Calliope—”
“Who on earth is Calliope?” Mrs. Prenderghast snarled.
“She’s a maid, Madam. Anyway, after asking around, I learned that it was she who actually took the painting up to the storeroom, as you requested. I did not personally do it, as you had asked me to deal with the affairs of the household, which I assumed were of greater importance.”
Mrs. Prenderghast nodded. “Did she do it, though?”
“She says she did not do it,” Percival responded. “She is the only suspect, however. Of the servants I spoke to, the only ones who saw the portrait saw it being handled by Calliope. The others did not know the portrait I spoke of. Unless one of them is lying, she is the only individual who could have done it.”
“Still, she was the only one seen with the painting. Bring her here, Percival.”
Several moments passed before Percival returned with a very timid brown Ixi, who stared at Mrs. Prenderghast with fear in her eyes.
“You must be Calliope,” Mrs. Prenderghast said, a false smile creeping onto her lips. “Please, delight me: did you or did you not receive a request from Percival to put the portrait in the storeroom?”
“I did, M-Madam,” Calliope responded, glancing humbly towards the ground.
“Did you or did you not fulfill that request?” Mrs. Prenderghast asked. A tone of danger crept into her voice.
“I-I did, M-M-Madam,” Calliope replied, shaking.
“Why do you sound so uncertain, Calliope? Did you, perhaps, disobey Percival’s order?”
“No!” Calliope said, sounding quite earnest. “I did exactly as Percival asked!”
“I am inclined to believe you are lying,” Mrs. Prenderghast announced, her eyes taking on a frightful flame.
“N-No, I promise, Madam, I am not!”
“I don’t believe you. You are, forthwith, no longer a member of this household. Pack your things and leave at once.”
Calliope burst into tears and fled the room, dashing down the hallway. The sound of her sobs carried on for several moments, before drowning into silence.
“Percival,” Mrs. Prenderghast said quietly. The Quiggle was standing to the side, looking quite distraught at what had taken place. “Percival, please see to it that the portrait is placed in the storeroom this time. If you hear any plans to hang it elsewhere in the house, inform me immediately.”
“Yes, Madam,” Percival replied. “It will be done.”
The rest of the day carried on in peace. Mrs. Prenderghast overheard several servants whispering of the fate of Calliope, but as the mistress of the house approached, they always scattered. Slackers, Mrs. Prenderghast thought bitterly. Half of them are insolent fools. The other half are morons.
Mrs. Prenderghast ate lunch and dinner mechanically. Her appetite, she found, had returned, now that the culprit was gone. Still, a voice nagged her from the back of her mind, which made her feel quite unlike eating.
You know it wasn’t her, the voice taunted. You know who it really is.
Mrs. Prenderghast ignored the voice, though it continued to bother her for the rest of the day.
At nighttime, Mrs. Prenderghast headed to her bedroom to take her evening bath. She was relieved to see that the portrait was gone. Once she had taken her bath, and felt quite clean, she dressed into her nightgown and slipped beneath the covers of her bed. Sleep greeted her almost immediately.
After she awoke, she performed her daily morning ritual – she chose her dress for the day’s affairs, she summoned the maids to dress her, she selected her jewelry, and then she headed down for breakfast. She was quite pleased to see that the painting was still gone from the hallway outside her bedroom.
She made her way to the dining hall, pushed open the doors, and froze in her tracks.
There, hanging above the fireplace, was the portrait of Elise, staring down at her.
Terror seized her; her heart stopped. She was rooted to the spot. She felt paralyzed. Again, she mustered the will to move – and she screamed. She shrieked louder and longer than she ever had. Still screaming, she fled the room, dashing down the hallway, passing The Moon of Neopia and The Crowning of Skarl without so much as a sideways glance. She finally quieted once she reached the end of the hallway, and staring out the window, she began to sob.
“Madam? Madam!” Percival cried, bursting from a nearby corridor into the hallway. He was at his mistress’s side in seconds. “Madam, what happened? What—”
“Who,” Mrs. Prenderghast wailed, “put the portrait in the dining hall? Tell me! Tell me now, Percival!”
Percival, horrorstruck, shook his head. “Madam, I do not—”
“You better learn who played the prank on me this time, Percival, because this time, I am not amused. I never was amused! I just want that portrait gone! Rid me of it!”
Percival nodded, and departed in a hurry. Mrs. Prenderghast was left alone. She wiped the tears from her eyes with an embroidered handkerchief, and continued staring out the window.
Mrs. Prenderghast steeled her determination to remain in control, and stared out the window. Countless servants approached her, asking if she needed anything, and she ignored them all. Half an hour passed before Percival returned, and Mrs. Prenderghast did not look away from the rolling hills outside her home.
When he had arrived, the frantic Quiggle began, “No one—”
“Don’t tell me that no one did it. Someone did it. Someone has to have done it!” Mrs. Prenderghast shrieked, furious, her anger having not subsided in the half hour she spent alone.
“I spoke to everyone, Madam!” Percival cried. “No one claims to—”
“Someone is lying!” Mrs. Prenderghast snarled. “Find out who, Percival! I trust that you can carry out this simple task!”
“Yes, Madam,” Percival replied tiredly, departing. Mrs. Prenderghast was beyond tears now. She wanted an explanation. She wanted someone to punish.
None of them did it, the voice in her head teased. You know who did it!
“Quiet!” Mrs. Prenderghast said aloud, startling a nearby maid who was dusting.
Percival was back in an hour or so; during that time, Mrs. Prenderghast ignored the countless servants who approached her.
“Madam,” Percival began, doing his best to remain rational, “It was Ulysses, Russell, and I who took the painting to the storeroom yesterday, as you requested. I assure you, none of us hung the painting in the dining hall.”
“Someone must have stolen it from the storeroom, then,” Mrs. Prenderghast spoke, her voice one of icy wrath.
“That’s the thing, Madam – I spoke to Esther, who spent all of yesterday cleaning the hallway that leads to the storeroom. Esther claims to have seen no one leave or enter the storeroom, save Ulysses, Russell, and I.”
“Bring Esther to me,” Mrs. Prenderghast breathed.
“Bring her to me,” the angry Aisha repeated. Percival nodded, hesitated for a moment, and then departed.
Several moments later, he returned with a calm white Elephante. This surprised Mrs. Prenderghast – she had expected Esther to be much the same as Calliope.
“You are Esther, correct?” Mrs. Prenderghast inquired.
“Yes, Madam,” Esther replied. Her voice was strong and confident.
“Tell me: did you or did you not see anyone enter or leave the storeroom yesterday?”
“I saw Percival, Ulysses, and Russell enter the storeroom with the portrait,” Esther said. “I saw them leave shortly afterwards. Apart from them, I saw no one enter or leave the storeroom, and I was there all day long.”
Mrs. Prenderghast glowered at the Elephante, who remained unfazed. “Tell me, Esther, do you know what happened to Calliope?”
“Yes, Madam,” Esther replied. “She was fired.”
“Do you know why she was fired?”
“She lied to me,” Mrs. Prenderghast quickly stated. “The same fate awaits you, if you do not tell me the truth.”
“Are you saying I am lying, Madam?” Esther replied, genuinely taken aback.
“Indeed I am,” Mrs. Prenderghast breathed, her voice low and dangerous.
“I assure you, Madam, in the fourteen years I have worked in this household, I have never disobeyed any order you have given me. I have worked faithfully and dutifully—”
“Tell me the truth,” Mrs. Prenderghast demanded.
“Tell me the truth!”
Esther, still not faltering, spoke softly. “I am speaking the truth, Madam, regardless of whether or not you think so.”
Mrs. Prenderghast’s eyes lit like flames. “You are no longer a member of the household, Esther. Pack your things and leave at once. I never wish to see you again.”
Esther grimaced. “I work for you for fourteen years, and this is how you repay me? I have never spoken a lie in my entire life, I’d have you know!”
“I said get out,” Mrs. Prenderghast snarled.
“You are just paranoid! You cannot just blame someone for the sake of pinning the blame—”
“I said get out!” Mrs. Prenderghast screamed.
Esther nodded. “Fine,” she murmured, and left the room.
When she was gone, and her footfalls had faded to silence, Mrs. Prenderghast spoke. “Percival, see to it that the portrait is removed from its spot. Have it burned.”
Percival was still shocked by the events that had taken place, including the order he had just been issued. There was a long pause.
“Do not question me, Percival,” Mrs. Prenderghast said sternly, her voice still laced with fire. “Or you will meet the same fate as Calliope and Esther.”
“Yes, Madam,” Percival said, nodding, resigning himself to her demand. He bowed and departed.
If news of Calliope’s firing spread quickly, the news of Esther’s firing spread like wildfire. There was not a moment for the rest of the day that Mrs. Prenderghast could not claim to hear the servants whispering. Like always, she ignored them.
When the portrait was gone, she entered the dining hall, and ate breakfast without thinking. After she was done, she could not claim to remember what she had eaten. Her mind was too preoccupied on what had transpired. She decided that the best course of action was to see to it that the portrait was burned.
Her trust in Percival wavered. He seemed reluctant to carry out her will. She would see to it that her will was carried out. There would be no foolery this time.
Mrs. Prenderghast, dressed in the turquoise gown she had selected for the day, stood before the furnace with Percival and Casper, a blue Mynci. The two servants held the painting. At their mistress’s behest, the portrait faced the opposite direction; she did not look into Elise’s eyes.
The furnace opened, and belched heat and smoke. Mrs. Prenderghast stood before it, unfazed, alongside her two servants. The portrait was lifted to the furnace’s hungry maw. She watched as it slid through the air and was thrown inside. For a second, Elise stared at her sorrowfully – and the painting vanished, swallowed in the flames. She watched this coldly, without so much as a stab of regret.
She was sure the portrait would not return. After all, she had seen to its destruction.
Mrs. Prenderghast went to bed that night, her fears relieved. She knew the portrait was gone. It had to be gone. She had seen it burn.
She awoke groggily. She yawned, ready to begin the morning ritual. She felt much better; she had felt terrible the past day, and it felt good to start anew. She turned to move to her wardrobe.
There, hanging from the wall that faced her bed, was the portrait of Elise, staring down at her.
The shriek that erupted from her lips carried throughout the house, throughout the hills that rolled beyond her chateau, over the lake, and through the woods.
She could not get rid of it.
To be continued...