VNS – The Fifth Portrait
Our final assignment for Vacation Necronomicon School is to choose a concept from HP Lovecraft’s commonplace book and interpret it as we wish. I have chosen number 210: “An ancient house with blackened pictures on the wall–so obscured that their subjects cannot be deciphered. Cleaning–and revelation.” I have tried to emulate Lovecraft’s own style, but without many of his more picturesque turns of phrase…
I had never before given much consideration to my great-uncle’s estate; being merely a distant nephew with an abundance of relations on my mother’s side ensured that I had not entertained the thought of obtaining even a share of the Carrick estate. I was satisfied with my own inheritance, secured when I obtained my majority, some ten years after the early death of my father left me alone in the world.
I had entered into the legal profession, and at two and twenty had passed from an articled clerk to seeking pupillage at a reputable chambers in the City.
I had returned from a promising interview at the set of Sir Joseph Campion when my landlady, a formidable Irish woman of uncertain years, brought to my room a telegram, bearing news which, unhappy at the time, would prove all the more so in due course.
I was informed that some weeks earlier a terrible conflagration had engulfed my great-uncle’s estate, killing him and several of my more distant relatives, but whom formed his immediate kin. The sole survivor, my second cousin Charles, had been rendered insensible by the cataclysm and confined to a sanatorium. There being no other surviving relatives save for Charles, who had been declared insane, I was declared heir to the Carrick estate; title, house, grounds, chattels and property, such as remained. I made immediate arrangements to travel north to the ancestral pile to make funeral arrangements for my departed kin and to secure what had become mine.
Conflagration was indeed accurate. No more of the house remained than the exterior walls. The interiors had been wholly consumed, all property destroyed, leaving only a skeletal vestige of what was once Carrick House. The rental income from local farms, and such investments as my great-uncle had made whilst alive were secure, so the loss was not total.
Rescued from the flames were a series of large paintings, five in total, of a size popular with the minor aristocracy for full-length portraits. The fire had evidently scorched the surfaces, and I was resigned to losing these also when a witness to the aftermath of the disaster gave me cause to reconsider.
Sergeant Astbury, of the local constabulary, had been one of the first men to arrive after the disaster He told me much that I had heard from the coroner, but also some unique details.
There had indeed been a storm on the fatal night, as the coroner’s report had remarked, and lightning was seen to strike the roof of the northern wing, which had been raised to the ground. It was universally acknowledged that lightning was the source of the fire. Sergeant Astbury remarked however that for some hours prior, local farmers had noticed a strange phosphorescence surrounding the house, though this may simply have been an accumulation of static, a prelude to the tempest to come.
The sergeant had arrived early the following morning, once daylight allowed for safe search of the smouldering wreck of the house. At the ruined wall that formed the boundary of the house and gardens he discovered my unfortunate cousin, insensible, but clutching these paintings.
“Must have been important to the family. Dare say they’re worth a bob or two.”
I was intrigued that my cousin would go to such effort for artwork already damaged by fire, so I examined the canvas more closely and discovered that it was in fact intact. What I took to be scorching was actually a combination of a greasy residue and soot; certainly nothing that care and attention could not restore. And as my cousin valued these enough to rescue them above more easily gathered items, I owed it to him to effect their restoration.
The sergeant also mentioned that when he awoke, he began to rave; uttering strange blasphemies against common decency and all manner of threats to his fellow man, all the while guarding the paintings as a mother would a child. But one word in particular he repeated, indeed would say nothing else once safely confined in St Joseph’s. A word I did not recognise, but now cannot utter without a sense of mortal dread.
I took the canvas and returned to London, entrusting the management of the assets and income that remained to my great-uncle’s stockbrokers, a reputable firm whom I trusted.
The paintings I sent on to Sotheby’s for restoration and valuation. I was somewhat displeased when shortly thereafter Sotheby’s requested that I collect my paintings. Restoration would not be attempted and no valuation would be given. I tried again with Christie’s, with much the same response. They appeared keen at first, but within a week they politely but firmly informed me that they never wished to see the canvasses again.
Perplexed, and more than a little vexed by this behaviour, I approached the National Gallery. My very good friend, Professor Ambrose Laird, had introduced me to a conservator working at the Gallery, a Jonathan Marlow. I sent the paintings to Marlow, and when a week passed with no displeasing news, I ventured to the Gallery and asked after Marlow. I was escorted to the basement laboratory, where experts busied themselves with the restoration of Old Masters. There, laid out on a series of benches, removed from their ornate frames, were the damaged paintings, a variety of young gentlemen studying them closely, armed with cotton and sundry chemicals essential to the restoration.
Marlow greeted me with enthusiasm, and I expressed my pleasure to see work progressing, explaining that my previous attempts had met with little success.
“That surprised me,” exclaimed Marlow. “These are most interesting works. Late 17th Century if I’m not mistaken, the canvas and pigments attest to that.”
He beckoned me towards a nearby canvas, which was greatly improved. “As you can see, under the frame the work is undamaged. The pigment is still vibrant, and a signature is almost discernible. A few more days and we may even identify the artist, which will of course aid the valuation.” He then pointed out areas of interest, showing where a figure was becoming clear, surely of a male, and speculating that it was an ancestor of mine.
It happened that my interview with Sir Campion was fruitful, and I became a pupil at his illustrious chambers. This entailed travel out to Cornwall for a rather gruesome murder trial, and so for some weeks I was out of town. On my return to London I paid a visit to Marlow to inspect the progress. I was distressed to discover that through carelessness, one of the conservators had spilled some chemicals in the laboratory, and an open flame had ignited them. In the ensuing chaos, poor Marlow became trapped, and had been killed.
My paintings however had survived. They had been transferred to the antiquities department of the British Museum upon the request of my friend Professor Laird, who led their Egyptology department. Confused, I travelled to Bloomsbury to meet with my friend.
“Dear Marlow asked me to take them, practically begged. I thought it was a rum request at first, I don’t usually deal with something as modern. But the signature. That made things interesting.”
“Are they not modern paintings then?” I was by this point quite baffled.
“Oh, undoubtedly. Early 18th Century it seems. But the signature, or what Marlow believed to be a signature; it isn’t a signature you see, it was a cartouche. Marlow sent a drawing of it to me to translate, and I recognised it instantly. I had seen the exact cartouche before, in the tomb of Nephren-ka, and so I was most intrigued that it should appear on these canvasses.”
“Indeed. May I see them?”
He stared at me for some moments, as if weighing the question in his mind. “I think that perhaps you ought to. Queer they are too.”
Laird showed me into a storage area, and set about unrolling the canvasses. “They’re in order” he said, glancing at me. “The cartouches are an incantation, a hymn if you will, from Nephren-ka to his dark god. And each in turn shows the master of Carrick House.”
He pointed to the first portrait. “Here is Arthur, Earl of Carrick. Notice the dark line across his neck. Deliberately painted in. Then comes his son, Fitzwilliam. See here, a clear black imprint upon the forehead. Then it is George-”
“Note that his features are blackened; that is pigment, not age or damage. Finally we have Charles, your cousin I believe. His head is surrounded by a white mist.”
“And so the fifth picture must be of Henry, Charles’ father.”
“You might suppose so, and I expected it to be so, but it cannot be. The cartouches are in a very specific order, with no missing stanzas. It is Arthur, Fitzwilliam, George then Henry. The fifth portrait comes at the end.”
“If the portraits are 18th Century as you say, how can they predate their subjects?”
“That question troubles me, but I am more troubled by what the portraits show. Consider; Arthur, with the line across his neck, died by hanging himself. Fitzwilliam, with a mark upon his forehead, received a bullet to the head at Waterloo. George died in a fire, and in this portrait is blackened. And Charles, with the fog enclosing his head, his mind. Insane, yes?”
I nodded, beginning to follow the import of his explanations. “And the fifth?” I scarce knew that I wanted the answer.
“I don’t know. It is not fully restored, work stopped at the cartouche. Nephren-ka ends his hymn of praise and calls out to his master, Nyarlathotep.”
I shuddered at the mention of the name. Nyarlathotep! The awful word my cousin repeated ceaselessly in the asylum. A word I knew not then, and only wish I could forget now.
My friend seized me by the shoulders. “Each portrait is of the rightful master of the Carrick estate. Arthur to Fitzwilliam, Fitzwilliam to George, George to Charles. His father Henry is absent only because he predeceased George, making Charles the heir.”
“But I am the heir, not Charles!”
“Think like a lawyer, not an inheritor. On George’s death, title passed to Charles. Only on declaration of his insanity did title then pass on to you.”
Laird was correct. Charles had held the title briefly, had for a short period been the legal heir. And only legal heirs were in the paintings… I was un-nerved. No, it was scarcely credible that centuries old paintings, bearing Egyptian curses, could foretell such things.
Laird continued. “I saw these cartouches when I was in Egypt, and have encountered the cult of the Black Pharaoh. Nothing good comes of these marks, death and madness follow them everywhere. Marlow begged me to take the pictures from him. Nobody wanted to continue work on them. Those who had complained of whispers in the storerooms, of a black pall that hung over the Gallery, and the dreams–the terrible dreams. Worse, the fire at the museum was no accident. It was Marlow. There are dozens of reputable witnesses, but none as will speak to I publicly. He set himself on fire, screaming at the end of dread Nyarlathotep. I beg you to be rid of these paintings my friend. Burn them. I fear for what the fifth portrait will show, but the previous four predict death and madness. Be rid of these cursed items, for I’ll not allow them to remain here.”
You may only imagine the distress in which I returned to my lodgings, carrying the canvasses in a roll. My mind whirled with the absurd impossibility of it all. I confess that as soon as I entered my chamber, I fell into a deep slumber, plagued by hot winds and sand…
The morning brought a clearer mind and an intense curiosity. It was a nonsense of course. Coincidences and conjecture. Portraits had been commissioned, and the Carricks had merely kept a stock of canvas and paint for this purpose. For only these dated from the past; there was no proof of when the portrait was actually painted. No, each must have been painted in the lifetime of the sitter, using old and trusted materials.
The predictions of fate? Artistic embellishments, their original meaning lost. The viewer saw what he wished to see, no more. And the cartouches? Some absurd joke on my great-uncle’s part. His fascination with the esoteric was known, even in my branch of the family, though little spoken of.
I was seized by a curiosity to see the final picture. If there was no-one willing to restore the painting, I would endeavour to do so myself.
I dedicated myself to learning the craft of art restoration, purchasing the correct equipment and chemicals, studying the techniques, at first in the evening, then all day as my mania grew. I confess, I allowed my law practice to subside; I was expelled from chambers, but with the Carrick investments had no need to earn money. I devoted myself to learning, then at last attempted the restoration.
The night grows darker; the lights in my room seem to fade, though there is no change perceptible throughout the rest of the lodging house. But in my room the warmth glow of the electric lamp retreats, replaced by an eerie phosphorescence.
I have finished the restoration, and await what must now come. It is an excellent likeness, very like the photograph taken of me whilst at Cambridge. Save for the expression upon my face. It is a look of horror, and it is my only comfort that I shall not live far beyond it. I dread He who comes, who will put the expression there.
In the portrait I am wearing the very clothes I stand in now, so I know it must be soon. In the background of the portrait lies the painting itself, a world within a world. The painting in the portrait differs from the real portrait in one respect alone. The door to my room, closed firmly in the copy, lies open in the actual painting.
A creaking, as though of slow, deliberate footsteps in the hallway unsettles my mind.
In the picture, stood in the open doorway and framed against the lights of the hall, is the Black Pharaoh Himself.
The door handle rattles, then stops, giving way to the groaning creak of my chamberdoor as it announces my final moment. I have glimpsed the Crawling Chaos, and now He comes to claim me–Nyarlathotep!