The Portrait: Part Five
Time passed, and the household of Mrs. Alicia Prenderghast was slowly restored to its peaceful state. The servants’ faith was restored in their mistress, who now had no reason for mad outbursts. In fact, a great change had taken place over Mrs. Prenderghast, who had become quiet and reserved ever since that fateful day. She resumed spending her days reading and adding new entries to her ever-growing collection of artwork. Her life was a serene one, indeed.
Occasionally, she would be strolling through one of the many hallways of the chateau and see a pair of golden eyes glaring at her from the darkness. However, it would always end up being Maelstra the Huntress by Jade Nighthawk, or The Many Faces of Neopia by Arnold Franz. For the first few months after Kiyabastis’s visit, Mrs. Prenderghast was constantly on the watch for any sign of the portrait’s reappearance. Gradually, however, she learned to recognize that it would no longer grace her walls.
She never did forget what happened, however. She never forgot Kiyabastis’s ritual, and all that had transpired as a result. She did not forget Elise’s stare, her glowing eyes, the floating portrait, or her final laughter. Elise would haunt her occasionally in her dreams or when Mrs. Prenderghast closed her eyes. For the most part, however, the Aisha was left in peace.
The portrait remained in the storeroom, just as Mrs. Prenderghast had ordered, and never left. In the first few months after that fateful day, she would send servants go to check to see that it was there; it always would be. She never had it moved, and she never entered the storeroom again.
That was not to say she never saw the portrait again, however. She saw it once more, and only once more, and that was in her final hour.
It was a dark winter night. No stars shone in the black stretch of sky; the only light came from the moon, which glowed alone. The lands below were bathed in soft and pearly light. This included the chateau by the lake, where Mrs. Prenderghast dwelt. She had not had the curtains drawn. As such, the moonlight fell in stretches upon the ground, sliding across the marble floor.
The bed was occupied by a quiet, sleeping Aisha, well into old age. Her emerald eyes, once brilliant with the fire of youth, were dim, and hidden behind her shut eyelids. Wrinkles were drawn into the face that had once been smooth and beauteous. Her hair was chocolate brown no longer; age had rendered it as white as the gleaming moon. She slept soundly, peacefully, surrounded by all the comforts she could ever want, though indulging in none. Each breath was a labor, but a labor she bore with silence.
Unbidden, a window unlatched and swung open noiselessly, and a cold wind blew through the room. It caught in Mrs. Prenderghast’s whitened locks and filled her lungs with its iciness. The woman gave a deep gasp, and her eyes opened, alert. She gazed at the open window, a sense of apprehension rising within her. Had someone broken in? She glanced at the silver bell upon her bedside table, but hesitated to ring it. Rather, she turned to gaze at the doors that opened into her bedroom. In doing so, she faced the wall that stood opposite her bed – and froze.
There, hanging upon the wall, as vividly as any nightmare, was the portrait of Elise. Her niece had not changed with time. She still wore her pale blue dress, and her face was still drawn without expression, without emotion. There was no flame that burned within her amber eyes, however. Her eyes, rather, seemed just like the rest of her, devoid of any feeling.
Am I dreaming? Mrs. Prenderghast wondered, her eyes still locked upon the portrait. She blinked once, then twice; each time, the portrait stared back at her. There was no chance that she was dreaming. Indeed, what she had always feared since that day had come true: Elise was back.
Amazingly, Mrs. Prenderghast felt no fear upon gazing over at her niece. Perhaps it was the gentleness she had adopted in her old age; perhaps it was the lack of malice in the eyes of the portrait. The elderly Aisha did not know.
Staring quietly at her niece, Mrs. Prenderghast suddenly felt the guilt that had rested within her all these years begin to reawaken.
She had not thought of Isabella Prynn in quite some time, in many years in fact. It seemed that she unconsciously avoided the guilt she had harbored for so long.
Isabella Prynn’s life had been one of sorrow and despair. The old woman had lost her husband and daughter. She had been desperate and alone for so many years of her life. Had Mrs. Prenderghast aided her in her time of vulnerability? Had she offered her support, as a member of her family? Had she? She already knew the answer.
She had not cared to help the poor old woman. She turned her back on Isabella Prynn, leaving her bereft of a family. Mrs. Prenderghast had even gone so far as to exploit her moment of weakness. Had she not sought to buy The Scorchio and the Puppyblew or Fyora in Mourning? She kicked Isabella while the old woman was down, and had not thought for a second of how she felt. When Isabella looked for the embrace of a family, Mrs. Prenderghast had coldly retracted it from her.
She could still imagine the old woman, her posture bent, clutching a grey shawl around her shoulders. She could see the look of great sadness in her tawny eyes, in those eyes so like her daughter’s. She could imagine the old woman refusing to sell the pieces of her collection, and she could recall her own feelings of bitterness and rage. She did not feel compassion toward the old woman’s plight.
Looking back, she did not understand how she could have taken such action against Isabella. Mrs. Prenderghast had no family, either. Her husband was gone, just as Isabella was gone, just as Elise was gone. She was too cynical, too foolish, too consumed by her youth and her wealth to care.
For the first time, Mrs. Prenderghast gazed without faltering at the portrait, and spoke.
“I finally understand, Elise. I spent all these years in ignorance, blinded by my greed. I was cruelest to your mother when she needed help the most; I sought to exploit her in her direst hour. How could I have been so foolish? I was blind to your mother’s plight. When she needed a family... I gave her nothing.”
Mrs. Prenderghast paused and shook her head.
“This is probably too little too late, Elise. But...”
Tears welled within Mrs. Prenderghast’s dim green eyes, and broke forth, sliding in rivulets to the ends of her cheeks. There, they fell silently to the silken sheets below. She sobbed as she finished her apology, so long overdue.
“...I am so sorry.”
The portrait did not change, but in Elise’s eyes Mrs. Prenderghast thought she could see the tiniest inkling of content. With that, the guilt within her dissipated. The old woman did not wipe the tears that fell from her eyes, but rather lay back against the pillow. She shut her eyes, for she was so very tired.
Mrs. Prenderghast’s breaths came in ragged gasps. The icy wind chilled her bones and filled her lungs. She realized just how old she was. Her eyes, for a moment, fluttered open.
“Goodnight, Elise,” she whispered softly.
With that, Mrs. Prenderghast closed her eyes, and took her last breath. She then was still.
Mrs. Prenderghast was gone.
By the morning, the portrait was gone, too.
After Mrs. Prenderghast’s passing, there was no reason to remain in the chateau by the lake. She had left no heirs. Once their final wages were distributed, the servants dispersed for new horizons. According to the old woman’s will, the paintings in her home were not to be touched or sold. They were to remain, along with the house, as a testament of the life of Mrs. Alicia Prenderghast.
Percival was the last one to depart the household. With tears in his eyes, he took his final trip through the hallways, glancing every so often up at the paintings on the walls. Every day, he had seen these paintings; only now, however, did he recognize them for what they truly were. He walked through the halls and stood in every doorway, gazing in at the rooms beyond, soaking in every sight. He knew he would never again enter the chateau.
The Quiggle had aged right alongside his mistress. Faithful until the end, he had never left her side, not once. He had no idea what he was going to do now that she was gone, and his duty to her finally completed. His entire life had been in servitude to her until now.
He began his final, thorough inspection of the chateau at dawn, and departed well into the evening. Tears streamed down his face as he departed the home that had for so long been his own.
The hallways, which had for every day of their existence seen dusters and brooms, would never again see them. The stables, which had once held Mrs. Prenderghast’s prized Alabrisses, became purposeless. The rooms, which had once been filled with the noises of whispering servants and the firm commands of Mrs. Prenderghast, were left silent. The books, which had for so long been dusted every single day, found themselves buried beneath that which they had never known. The windows, once freshly cleaned every week, became coated in grime and dust.
The table of the dining hall, for the first time, was empty. There were no more steaming platters of foods from all corners of Neopia. There were no pewter bowls of exotic fruits. For the first time, the dining hall was empty of the foods its mistress had never eaten. Instead, the table sat, unattended, collecting dust.
The storeroom still housed artwork that would never hang within the chateau’s halls. These paintings and sculptures would never leave that room. There was no chance that they might know the admiration that the other paintings did. The paintings left hanging upon the walls would remain there forever. No portrait in the home would ever again be dusted, refinished, cleaned, or inspected. They were all abandoned, a museum for no one.
This was not to say that the chateau would never again know footsteps in its halls. The unattended collection of Mrs. Prenderghast was a beacon for thieves and foul-minded crooks. Many times would they seek entrance, and find it; never would they go through with what they had intended. Foolish as children sneaking into a house they thought haunted, they would always flee in terror.
For the specter of Mrs. Prenderghast would roam the halls of her empty chateau, forever, guarding the collection she had spent her life hoarding. This was not out of greed, but for justice. It was a testament of her life’s work, and she would let no one disrupt it. Though her collection of the works of Arnold Franz may never be completed, at least it would not be scattered.
There was one painting that none ever sought to take, however. It hung in the highest room of the chateau, above the luxurious bed that had once belonged to the house’s mistress.
The portrait depicted a young pink Aisha, with long brown curls, drawn into ringlets. The dress she wore was a pale blue, the color of a cloudless summer sky. Her amber eyes were wide, opened in a stare that communicated an emotion none could quite name, but all understood.
It was Elise.
And, for the first time, she was smiling.