The new PorterGirl novel, The Vanishing Lord, is centered around Old College’s most valuable piece of artwork, the portrait of founding Master, Lord Arthur Layton. In the prologue, we learn the origins of the painting and a little of the fate that befell the unfortunate artist…
Old College; Summer 1448
Lord Arthur Layton shifted in his chair, the last of the evening sun clinging with amber fingertips to the window of his study in the Master’s Lodge. Although he possessed the physique of a man very much accustomed to sitting, he had been jammed into this same chair since just after breakfast; his left buttock had relinquished all feeling around teatime and now the right one was definitely starting to feel funny. “Please, my Lord, I just want to finish your hair before the light goes.”
From behind an enormous canvass came the voice of Ralph Eels, a promising young painter who did his best to embody the type of philosophical malaise that so defined the artistic temperament. Unfortunately, his plump red cheeks and jaunty eyebrows gave him the appearance of being perpetually on the brink of bursting into song, which rather spoiled his tortured pretence.
Eels had been apprehensive about accepting the commission from Lord Layton. His previous commissions had come mainly from the church, who took a very dim view of the rash of up-start Colleges that were beginning to blister the academic landscape of The City. It was no secret that Lord Layton – Master of the Order of the Lesser Dragon – had founded Old College with the express intention of irritating the church and had, by all accounts, been very successful. Despite repeated attempts by the Bishop to sabotage Layton’s plans, Old College now dominated the north bank of the River and was expecting its first students in just a few weeks’ time.
Brushes raced against daylight and Eels flung paint ever more erratically, resembling a deranged conductor by the time the room had filled with shadows. He exhaled theatrically and dropped his brushes. Fetching the candelabra from above the fireplace, Eels brought it over to the canvass and invited his muse to inspect his handiwork. Lord Layton was tentative about leaving his chair; the presence of both buttocks had yet to be established. He finally opted to put his faith in his feet and hoped that the buttocks would follow along in their own good time.
Lord Layton smiled as his eyes devoured the portrait. A golden glow glistened from candle light on wet oils, lending an empyrean sheen to the noble features so generously portrayed before him. It was like looking in a mirror. Actually, it was much better than that. Mirrors could be most unforgiving and Layton was certain that they had been lying to him for the last ten years. But this here, upon the canvas, this was truly Lord Arthur Layton. Dashing and athletic, displaying a countenance of wisdom and power, this was the Lord Layton that history would know.
Eels coughed discretely. Layton turned to him and was met with a jolly, round face and eyes brimming with mindless optimism.
“Is it to your Lordship’s liking?”
A broad smile split the wobbling jowls of Lord Layton and a satisfied murmur escaped his lips.
“It is exactly as it should be, dear boy,” he replied. “Exactly.”
A waft of relief passed over the fidgeting Eels, who knew only too well the cost of displeasing the rich and powerful. He allowed himself an elated chuckle, which Layton found rather presumptuous.
“I cannot tell you how pleased I am to hear that, my Lord,” babbled Eels, earnestly tidying his scattered brushes. “My brother painted the Bishop of Bath & Wells last summer and the old boy wasn’t pleased at all. At all. Said he made him look fat. Well, if you’ve ever seen the Bishop of Bath & Wells – he is bloody fat and my brother painted him as barely plump which in my mind was a great enough concession to artistic licence as it was.”
“No doubt, no doubt,” Lord Layton had begun looking about the room and patting his complaining gut, empty but for a meagre plateful of pork and pickles consumed many hours ago.
“Bishops are buggers to paint, you know,” Eels continued, unaware of the disinterest of his audience. “I’ve got the Bishop of Norwich next week and he’s got a face like a frog sipping vinegar and I have no idea how I’m going to put a glow of ecclesiastical radiance on that.”
Layton raised an eyebrow.
“The Bishop of Norwich, you say?”
“Yes. I’m hoping he might grow a large beard so the worst of his face might be hidden.”
Layton indulged upon a moment of dark contemplation. Beatific bishops were not conducive to the annuls of history; not when he and his magnificent College were contriving to espouse science and education above the muddy ignorance of religion. History should remember such men as they were – bloated with pious arrogance and riddled with decrepitude and misguided self-importance. He turned once again to the freshly painted canvass and admired the glistening magnificence of his own self, artfully arranged in thick, effulgent oils. Surely, there could never be a finer portrait. Or rather – there should never be a finer portrait. As Master of the Order of the Lesser Dragon and founder of Old College, it stood to reason that Lord Arthur Layton should be the subject of such an incomparable work and that no lesser person should be afforded the honour as to sit for the same artist.
Lord Layton considered first bribes, then threats, by which to persuade the young artist that painting the Bishop of Norwich could be damaging to his career, not to mention his health. But either method could prove to be costly, lengthy or both. A more efficient approach was required.
Eels was collecting his things and giving a running commentary on what he expected to be having for his tea, when Lord Layton called over to him.
“Young man! Before you go, young man, you must grant me one final requisition. I wish but to gaze just once upon the hands that devised such a masterpiece as this, my portrait. Come to me, boy, and show me your hands.”
The words were gold-plated with compliment and praise, but beneath the gilt lay something cold and black. But Ralph Eels saw little else to do but obey. He approached, podgy palms outstretched, which Lord Layton took in his own monstrous grasp. The artist’s hands were peppered with all the colours of the canvass and Layton wondered that if he squinted hard enough he might see his own face within them. Layton positioned his hold around the artist’s thumbs, which he then tore from their sockets like the legs from a roasted chicken.
Short, rasping breaths preceded an animalistic wail from a wide-eyed and agonised Eels. He fell to his knees, sobbing wildly, leaving his thumbs now firmly in the possession of Lord Arthur Layton. Faint wisps of steam rose from the freshly-pooling blood on the flagstone floor and a faint metallic oder filled the room.
Sometimes in Old College, talent is a very dangerous thing.