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The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque
by Jeffrey Ford
Eos, 2002

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Chapter One

A Nice Bit of Work

Much to my unease, Mrs. Reed positioned herself, all evening, beneath or immediately to either side of her new portrait. She had, for this occasion, worn the same black gown and diamond necklace I had requested she wear when posing for me. Given the situation, comparisons between God's work and my own were unavoidable. I daresay the Almighty's original was found somewhat wanting in the face of my painterly revision. Whereas, in His unquestionable wisdom, He had gone for the grandiose in the formation of her nose and saw fit to leave a prominent gap between the front teeth, I had closed ranks and reduced to beautiful normalcy those aspects of her features that made her her. By using a faint shade of rose and sparing the chiaroscuro, I had added a certain youthful radiance to the tone and elasticity of her flesh, turning back the clock to but a few minutes after that earlier hour when these corresponding changes would have seemed ludicrous.

Perhaps Mrs. Reed was wholly unaware of these discrepancies or, being aware of them, believed that by standing as close to her fairer double as possible she would permanently confuse artifice and reality in the minds of her friends and family. Perhaps she was hoping for some supernatural transmutation between flesh and paint, as was the plot of Wilde's recent novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Whatever the case, she appeared to be beaming with joy. As for the rest of us in attendance, we were all uneasy conspirators in a plot to ignore the truth. Thankfully, her husband had spent a small fortune on good champagne for the unveiling and encouraged all to drink freely.

Many of the fifty or so guests felt compelled to approach me and offer praise for my work, which if not for the alcohol would have left my expression a permanent wince.

"Piambo, the rendering of the goldfish in the bowl on the table next to Mrs. Reed is spectacular. I can count the very scales from here."

"The barely wilting nasturtiums in that Chinese vase behind her are so lifelike."

"No one can capture the fold of a gown as you can, and my, how the diamonds sparkle."

I politely thanked them all, knowing that in the coming year I would be doing for some of them precisely what I had done for Mrs. Reed. When I thought I was finally to be left alone, Shenz, my colleague in the fine art of portraiture, sidled up next to me. A short fellow, sporting one of those close-trimmed beards that come to a point, he was well known for an adherence to the tenets of the Pre-Raphaelites and his portraits of the lesser luminaries of the Vanderbilt clan. Hiding his impish grin behind a large cigar, he stared across the spacious parlor at the portrait.

"A nice bit of work, Piambo," he said, and then slightly turned his head and shifted his eyes to look up at me.

"Have some more champagne," I whispered to him, and he quietly laughed.

"Salubrious is the word I would use," he said. "Yes, quite salubrious."

"I'm keeping a running tally," I told him, "as to whether people appreciate the goldfish or the nasturtiums more."

"Put me down for the nose," he said. "A truly ingenious economy of paint."

"I think that was Reed's favorite also. He paid me exorbitantly for this one."

"And well he should," said Shenz. "I think your magic has enchanted his wife into completely forgetting his indiscretion with that young salesgirl from Macy's. Forget about all that new money his ready-made shoe mills have pumped out; only your abilities could have saved his marriage and respectability."

"Lord knows there is much more to it than simply painting," I said. "Who is your next victim?"

"I've picked up a commission just this evening to immortalize the Hatstells' corpulent offspring. A pair of overfed little monsters I am contemplating drugging with laudanum to make them sit still for me." Before departing, he raised his champagne glass and offered a toast. "To art," he said as the rims of fine crystal touched.

After Shenz left me, I took a seat in the corner next to a potted fern and lit my own cigar, sending up a smoke screen behind which I could hide. By then I had had too many glasses of champagne, and my head whirled. The light reflecting off the ornate chandelier hanging in the center of the room, combined with the flash of jewelry bedecking the better halves of New York society's nouveau riche couples, nearly blinded me. Snatches of conversation occasionally leaped out of the oceanic rumblings of the assembled guests, and in a matter of minutes I had heard pieces of discussions concerning everything from the opening of the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago to the latest antics of that nightshirted child who inhabited "Down Hogan's Alley," the World's new cartoon.

In my daze it came to me that I not only wanted but needed to be elsewhere. I realized that of late I had been spending more time in chandeliered parlors, drinking myself to the verge of a stupor, than I did in front of the easel. At that moment the sea of party-goers shifted, my eyes focused, and I caught a glimpse of Mrs. Reed standing now by herself, staring up at her portrait. My view of her was from the back, but I saw her slowly lift one arm and touch her hand to her face. She then turned quickly and walked away. An instant later my view was again obscured by a woman wearing a green silk gown, the color of which reminded me that I was feeling a twinge of nausea. I stubbed out the cigar in the potted fern and then rose unsteadily. Luckily, without having to venture too far into the thick...

Excerpted from The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford. Copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey Ford. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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