The scene was the Savant Club in the last years of the 19th century. Despite the extreme lateness of the hour, a few of the regulars were gathered there for cards and conversation. The latter turned, as it often did, to the uncanny.
“H’m,” said Nelson Hayes, one of the older members of the Club. Before retiring rather early thanks to an inheritance, he’d been employed at the British Museum. “I’ve heard a tale or two that’d chill the blood.”
Hazel Payton, late of West End fame, smiled thinly. “Have you?”
“Oh yes. Even yours,” Hayes insisted, smiling back despite perhaps a hint of asperity in his tone.
“Do tell,” a new voice said from behind the old Museum man. He started and then turned, rather slowly.
It was Miss Amelia Frost, the head of the Inner Circle. She nodded almost imperceptibly and gracefully took a seat that another one of the men at the table hastened to pull out for her. A round of heartfelt “Good evening” and the like ensued.
“Tut,” Miss Frost said.
“Tell me a tale that will chill my blood, Mr. Hayes.”
“Ah, well, h’m – ah, yes, I know just the thing!” Hayes said with evident relief. “Yes, just the thing. This was told to me some years ago, not long after I left the Museum.”
Save Miss Frost, poised as always, everyone at the table shifted and groaned. The story of Hayes’ departure from the Museum was so well known any of them could have told it.
“But, of course, it’s not that business I have to tell,” Hayes was swift to assure them. “No, this involves a certain inn in Warwickshire. It doesn’t stand any more, but it did, I believe, when I was told the story. The story itself took place in the days of George III…”
* * *
In the days of George III, [i]The Woodhouse[/i] was an inn along the road from Kenilworth to Solihull. Although well-situated, it was not prosperous. Locals avoided it and travelers generally found it expedient to press on to Temple Balsall or Balsall Common.
Our protagonist is Sabine de Meunier. She was a young French woman of noble birth who had decided, somewhat hastily, to take advantage of the healthy clime of England instead of enduring the Jacobin storm battering [i]la Patrie[/i]. Mlle de Meunier was going to Solihull, where she had friends, but the rotten weather obliged her to stop rather than continue to the former or even Temple Balsall. The hitherto silent driver of her coach suggested [i]The Woodhouse[/i]
Lacking any knowledge of the district, and somewhat worse the wear for the sudden rain, Mlle de Meunier acquiesced. Thus she found herself in halting converse with the innkeep, a rather batrachian specimen. Neither spoke the King’s English (as it was then) with great skill, but eventually it came across that lodgings were available. Perhaps not of the quality she was acquainted with, but respectable enough for a country inn, the proprietor promised after his fashion. “Oh, yes, miss is in luck. There’s a good room on the first floor. Ain’t a proper hall, no, but still the best you’ll find, that’s a fact.”
Mlle had her doubts to the good innkeeper’s honesty, but no doubts whatsoever that she had never stayed in such humble quarters. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased, as Scripture says. The room itself was a bare one, with bed, dresser, and what you might call a desk if you were feeling generous, and a chair to go with it. It was hardly fitting for one of Mlle’s servants in the days when she had any, let alone a woman of high birth, and possessed only two features of note.
The first was a lengthy phrase rather minutely carved into the lintel of the door. Mlle de Meunier had to stand on tip-toes to read it, and even with the aid of the shabby oil lamp that she took from the pseudo-desk, it was rather inscrutable to her:
[i]But wilde beaƒts ƒhall reƒt there, & their houƒes ƒhall be filled with ƒerpents & ouƒtriches ƒhall dwell there, & ye hairy ones ƒhall daunce there.[/i]
The second was the painting. It was in the style of the latter half of the 17th century and was a curious mixture of portrait and landscape. There was a woman in the foreground, dark all around, quite obviously some sort of Latin although looking rather placid for that type. Behind her, forested hills, a dreary sort of river, a setting sun. Nothing of great interest, you might suppose. There was no signature, but a plate on the bottom of the frame read [i]PORTRAIT OF AN ITALIAN[/i].
Mlle made herself home as best she could. Once her belongings were all in place, she was ushered into a shabby sort of parlour. Supper, served by a near-silent woman, was nothing more than warm soup and some slices of cold meat, with a glass of vinegary wine to wash it down. All in all, it was at best just barely adequate to Mlle’s needs. She was considerably homesick and quite abashed, and dearly wished for escape from this dreary fate.
Returning to her room, the painting caught her eye. At first, it hadn’t seemed very striking, but now, Mlle was somewhat entranced by the piece. There was something vivid, almost lifelike, in the Italian woman’s eyes. Quite a fine bit of work for what had first seemed an uninspired daub.
And, aided by the strong, steady rain, now to sleep…
* * *
It was the very stroke of nine o’clock when Mlle woke suddenly, courtesy of the sound of a sigh – or was it a sob?
Naturally, our fair Frenchwoman looked around quite sharply, but there was no one to be seen. She’d sensibly locked the door when retiring for the night. Shabby as the room was, the door was sturdy. It would take prodigious strength to batter it down. And the windows were shut. It was unlikely they had been opened since the reign of George II and doubtful anyone unequipped with a pry-bar could have done so now. No, Mlle was quite secure.
But wait! What was this? There was some curious magnifying or illuminating property to the moonlight, apparently, because looking at the painting now, hitherto hidden details could be seen. Dark figures, four or perhaps five, were now faintly visible behind the Italian woman. They were hard to make out in any detail, a great fault on the painter’s part. Was he an amateur? Yes, quite likely. A country squire expressing talents he did not fully possess, no doubt. And as for the Italian, her expression was not placid so much as stoic… or perhaps resigned.
It never occurred to Mlle that with the storm still raging, there could have been no moonlight whatsoever.
She sat upright in bed for some time, staring at the painting, before sleep claimed her again, but not for all that long.
The clock struck twelve when Mlle was once again roused. This time, it was a cold puff against her neck. She slapped at her perfect throat, roused herself and then looked around in confusion and no bit of fear. It had been as if someone had breathed on her! How could it be? There was certainly the feeling of some shadowy presence in the room. As hastily as she could, Mlle lit the oil lamp alongside her bed and was glad of the light cast upon the room through the glass, greasy and smudged though it was.
Nothing. The windows were still shut, the door still locked. The room was, Mlle de Meunier aside, empty of any Christian souls, or so it seemed at first glance.
Her gaze was irresistibly drawn to that painting which loomed so large in her room and her imagination alike.
There were more tricks of the moonlight, which was even brighter now, if focused rather tightly upon that old picture. The dark figures loomed somewhat larger and clearer now. They were more or less of human proportions, if rather muscular, but covered in thick, tangled fur. There was also some strangeness about their legs. They were altogether too thin for such robust bodies, for one thing, and for another, there was something queer about the way they were bent.
As for what still seemed the focal point of the painting, the Italian woman’s resigned expression was not resigned at all, but clearly one of fright. Mlle gazed upon the ever-revelatory art for quite a while, fixated by it, before somehow again falling into slumber.
A sigh (or sob) in the room, an exhalation upon a lovely neck, and now a touch, feathery and warm, upon the same. It was now three in the morning. As before, so now – after the usual bout of dizzying terror, and hastily confirming the room was empty, Mlle of course looked to the painting.
What was this? Could it be? It couldn’t, but it was!
The woman in black was moving within the bounds of the frame! Her hands were pressed against the canvas, as if seeking escape, and she uttered silent entreaties while tears streamed down her cheeks. Only a hard heart could have resisted such a silent entreaty, and Mlle’s was soft as butter.
She rose, her shift no doubt gleaming in the light (of the moon or whatever it was), and crossed the room, bare feet making but the faintest noises upon the floorboards.
There could be no doubt. The Italian woman, weeping and moaning, had both palms pressed flat against the canvas. It was a remarkable effect. Those pale hands seemed almost to pulse with the frantic force of her thumping heart.
After a moment’s hesitation on the precipice, as it were, Mlle reached out to her imprisoned co-dweller. When her fingers passed through what should have been canvas, instead of pressing against said material, she gasped – and gasped again when the woman in black took hold of her wrists!
“Ah, mon dieu!” Mlle cried out. The grip of the Italian woman – the Italian spectre – was cold and hard as iron. There was no escape. None whatsoever. Mlle de Meunier was pulled headlong into that oh-so-curious painting.
There was a moment of dizziness, threaded through with a mad laugh of relief and delivery, and then Mlle found herself on dry earth, pebbly and rough against her soft soles. She’d been turned around 180° and was staring out at her dark, shabby room. All was nearly black as pitch. The moonlight, or whatever strange light it was, was gone.
Naturally, she pounded against the canvas, but while it was as clear as glass, it was as hard as stone. There was no escape that way.
Mlle de Meunier screamed, and screamed again when hairy, tenebrous shapes clutched at her, took hold of her and drew her back into the waiting darkness, but no sound was heard in the inn…
* * *
In the morning, the innkeeper and his wife quietly disposed of Mlle’s possessions. The driver’s silence was, as usual, purchased with two guineas.
The inn no longer stands…
* * *
“The inn no longer stands, and the painting, described as [i]Portrait of a Frenchwoman[/i], ended up, I believe, in the collection of the late Lord Atherstone.”
Miss Frost clapped, and so, of course, did all the others.