The French doors stood open, letting in a breeze that stirred the plants on the veranda like playful fingers, but it remained stubbornly, oppressively hot in Basil Hallward’s studio. The heat intensified the odor of oil paints, canvas, and turpentine, as well as the heavy perfume of crushed flowers, but it was such a pleasure to look upon her friend as he painted that Lady Henrietta Wotton did not stir from the divan upon which she lay, a cigarette dangling between her fingers, the smoke of which carried the curiously potent odor of fresh ginger.
Basil did not speak as he worked, as was his custom?— ?and while it was hers to comment on matters of the day as he dabbed and daubed, today she only watched. She was content to simply hearken to the muffled rumblings of London that filtered faintly into the room from beyond the little oasis of Basil’s townhouse and patio garden.
The reason for Lady Henry’s quietude was respect for her friend’s recent poor health, as well as for his subject matter. Basil was hard at work on a portrait ?— ?in fact, was very close to finishing it. It was a unique piece ?— ?Basil typically painted only from life, and yet, much to their mutual dismay, the subject of this picture was no longer counted among the living. Even so, the painting had the startling appearance of vitality; its colors were not those of grief, nor was its subject somber in his funereal portrait. The slender man was laughing, just as he had done in life, standing carelessly against a pillar with his hands in his pockets, his expensive suit as artfully rumpled as his fair hair. And though said hair had a touch of gray in it, he was consummately youthful in appearance, and seemed as untouched by sorrow as a boy half his age.
Basil, however, looked years older than when he had begun to paint the piece, though it had only been a few months since he had applied gesso to the canvas.
Lady Henry raised the fragrant cigarette to her lips and inhaled deeply. As the mingled essences of the tobacco and ginger hit her bloodstream, she felt the independent presence that always lurked at the back of her mind stir slightly, acknowledging what she saw ?— ?seeing for itself, but through Lady Henry’s eyes. A sense of appreciation and longing touched her consciousness as the colors intensified. The shapes became more shapely; the beauty, more beautiful.
I miss him so much, she thought.
The presence lovingly acknowledged but did not partake of her sorrow. She did not expect it to. The demon that had been her constant companion for over a decade could not feel regret. It was not a part of its nature. Currently, it was more concerned with the painting. It really was as perfect a reproduction of the man as was possible. Lady Henry would know, for she had known the subject all his life. He was ?— ?or rather, he had been ?— ?her brother. Her twin, in fact. The only person in the world who might have known him better was the one who painted him now ?— ?the dark, brooding Dionysus to the brilliant Apollo on the canvas. Now that there was more silver mixed in with the black of Basil’s hair, he was even more the night, if the man in the painting was the day.
With a heavy sigh, Basil set down his brush and stepped back.
“Are you finished?” asked Lady Henry.
“I’ve done as much as I can today without risking muddying it,” he replied.
“Well then, let’s step outside and have a cocktail,” she suggested. “Or champagne? I don’t think it’s too early to celebrate your triumph. It’s your best work yet.” She paused. “Though before I get excited, I suppose I should ask if you have any decent champagne in the house?”
“By whose standards ?— ?yours, or mine?” It made her heart glad to hear him chuckle, even if it was only an echo of his former hearty laugh. “Decent enough to mix with absinthe, I’d imagine.”
“Lovely,” said Lady Henry. “Let’s do that.”
She rose as Basil rang the bell, and in a cacophony of crackling joints, stretched her arms, back, and legs. Lady Henry was wiry and fair, like her brother had been ?— ?youthful, but clearly in her middle years ?— ?and she, too, cut a dashing figure in her sack coat and trousers. Even before her brother’s death Lady Henry Wotton had scandalized London society by wearing men’s clothing in public, but while she and her twin had been built along the same lines, Oliver’s suits had been too large in the shoulder and too tight in the hips. She knew, for she’d tried them all on in hopes of pinching them.
After his death, she had had his wardrobe tailored to her own measurements, and not just because Oliver’s taste had been impeccable. She missed her brother every day, and it comforted her to wear his clothes.
A maid appeared without a sound, bearing a chilled bottle in a bucket filled with ice, and then departed just as silently as Basil uncorked it with a faint hiss. After splashing absinthe in two coupes, he topped them off with the champagne and handed one over to Lady Henry.
“To your finest work yet,” said Henry, toasting her friend as she admired the painting from afar. “I do hope when you’re finished you’ll bring it round and show it off to our ?— ?or rather my ?— ?colleagues? Give us the first look, before you send it anywhere?”
“I don’t think I shall send it anywhere?.?.?.?at least, not for some time,” answered Basil, his back to the painting. Henry wondered if he was trying not to look at it.
“Why on earth not?”
“Don’t laugh at me, but it is too personal. The wound is too fresh. I cannot have it judged by anyone, or remarked upon by common people. Or uncommon people, for that matter?.?.?.?save for you.”
Henry gave him a playful smile. “Really? Only me?”
Basil looked a bit uncomfortable. “Yes, though I know, of course, that you are never truly alone.”
The demon stirred again in Henry’s mind, hearing itself referred to, though obliquely.
“Neither was Oliver,” said Henry gently.
“I know, I know, but neither does that mean I am eager to show off this canvas to my former social circle.”
Henry almost choked on a swallow of champagne. “Former! But surely you do not mean your absence at my gatherings to be a permanent one?”
Basil did not answer; instead, he wandered onto the veranda. Henry followed him. She had designed the garden herself, and was pleased to see that enough light came in through the fronds and branches to keep the patio bright, while still creating the illusion that they were in a country garden rather than the heart of Chelsea.
“Baz,” she said, now as serious as she had moments ago been playful, “tell me truly. Do you mean to leave us forever?”
“And what if I did? Would you compel me to return?”
“Never,” she said. “It is not our way.” The presence in her mind heartily agreed, but she did not tell Basil this. “But?.?.?.”
“But I will miss you! We all would. Your absence has been noticed, and not just by us.”
“Do not speak to me of that thing!” Basil hissed, whirling around, spilling his drink all over his hand. He cursed, and hastily sucked his fingers dry. “My apologies, Harry,” he said, his voice low lest they be overheard, “but surely you must see why it is impossible. Really, I’m astonished you remain in contact with it after Oliver ?— ?after he, after they?.?.?.”
Henry put her hand on her friend’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “My dearest Basil, if there is one person in this world who regrets Oliver’s death more than you do, it is I. I was only his sister; the two of you, well, calling you lovers seems like an insult, given the depth of your connection. Oliver and I shared a womb, but the two of you shared a life.”
She wandered away from Basil and set her drink down on a low table in order to withdraw another cigarette from the silver case in her breast pocket. She did not offer Basil one, and though he did not as a rule mind smoke, he wrinkled his nose when she lit it. Out of courtesy, when she exhaled, she blew away from him.
“That said,” she continued, “he and I did share something, something that made us closer than siblings. When we decided to summon it, to invite it into our lives, our bodies, our minds, we knew what we were doing. And when Oliver did what he did?.?.?. perhaps it does not comfort you, knowing he chose his fate, but he did choose it. You know as well as I that unlike others of its type our demon is not the sort to require that sort of sacrifice. Thus, I choose to remain a hierophant of that which has let so much beauty into my life. Beauty, after all, is the only thing that matters.”