The Poison of a Smile
A Lie by Steven Jensen
'Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow'
T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
Camden Town, 1881
The only sign of life he found in the broken and windswept house was one of death, the empty body borne on a cradle of bloodstained paper.
Beneath the room where the shell of his beloved lay, the intruder followed a trail of torn pages, fearing all the while that everyday objects – a ticking clock, a family portrait – hinted at some sinister meaning beyond their shaded faces. He escaped their scrutiny by way of the staircase.
The bedroom door was open, thrown back in fury, or perhaps, invitation. He entered, and the real world was lost to him.
He approached the corpse directly, certain that the grey mass of flesh was not Helena Graham at all but a snare for the sentimental, a decoy set by the most wicked of all hunters. The tableau mort was striking but ineffective. Without pause for thought, he grasped and finally tore out the long, crooked nail which fixed her hand to the headboard. A few pages, streaked with lines of red and black, a spray of new and old blood, fell away from her stiffened fingers. The intruder began to read Helena's final words...
This is my voice. You cannot hear me, but I hope you will read my thoughts...I will endeavour to record everything – each word, each deed, every thought and action; such is the dark gift of insight Alatiel has imposed upon me. To my regret, I am certain she will take her turn to relate our story, smiling to herself all the while, secure in her wretched vanity and the knowledge that the chances of this journal being found are slim. And besides, she may just cast these pages into the fire and my words will have been in vain. That would amuse her, I imagine...if she is capable of such a human trait.
She will use my mind, my body, the hands of a writer, to set down this tale. I hope someone discovers my journal and, having read it, fashions a way to destroy Alatiel, even if this action means the loss of what was once my life.
"I've found her!" Julian Paradine said. Those were his very words. But truth be told, Alatiel found him, marked him out; well, she left her mark on poor Julian...on all of us, in fact.
We sat outside a small café in Thurzon Street, the men daydreaming, no doubt, that they were kindred souls of the Parisian Bohemians we had all read about; I, the token female in this circle of art lovers, admitted only by virtue of my writing pastime and of course, because of my brother Matthew's presence. Although our parents had passed on, keeping company with these harmless 'radicals' would have been unthinkable were it not for my beloved chaperone.
Julian alone had actually been to Paris, but then, he was the only one amongst us whose career was in the ascendant; his crowd-pleasing paintings were beginning to be noticed by the Academy, no less.
He pulled away from our table, took the girl roughly by the arm and pushed her forward. She appeared to glide, or float, towards us, and even when the cause of her strange and somewhat comical motion came into view, the eerie effect remained. The girl gave the impression of perfect control - of herself and of events - although seemingly at the whim of her master. She did not stir, did not blush as one might expect.
With his usual carefree, infectious enthusiasm - the joie de vivre which so endeared him to his friends - Julian presented his new plaything for closer inspection. Or perhaps that should be 'delectation'; Matthew's mouth fell open and he gazed in wonderment. However, the poet Callum Flynn flinched as though he'd been struck. He raised himself, made no attempt at excuses and simply murmured “I must go,”; he'd always impressed me as a strange man, all the more now. The others laughed, quietly at first, then gave free rein to their merriment once Flynn had disappeared. They returned to the scrutiny of the girl, in that concentrated, trepidatious and thoroughly silly way which is the mark of all men, I've found. I, of course, could stare freely at her, with no such pretence or man-made restriction.
Certainly, she was beautiful, but in a strangely bland, indistinct way – not unlike an elder sister of Mr Carroll's 'Alice', I thought. Her complexion was simply too pale, as though iced water slithered through her thin veins, and her ash blonde hair had none of the lustre of true health.
Julian held the girl by her shoulders, and addressed us again:
"Well actually, Cristian Salazar found her, or rather, he bought her. Made a gift of her to me. Say hello to Alatiel."
They greeted her respectfully enough, I suppose, though Daniele Navarro made a show of slowly raising his hat, a display of ironic homage unworthy of him, I thought. Matthew mumbled a few indecipherable words, such was his amusing shyness. The girl remained silent and still. Julian Paradine stood apart from her now.
“Ah, my apologies, gentlemen – and Helena, of course – I should have mentioned that Alatiel is a mute...or at least, she says she is.”
I felt rather ashamed as the others laughed at the girl's expense.
“'Alatiel'...that seems familiar to me, as if it were from a book I read many years ago.”
“She has no name, Daniele,” Julian said, “so I chose one for her. I have invented her, you might say.”
“I thought you had broken with Salazar, Julian? Are you so easily bought?” Navarro teased. A sly but affectionate smile graced his handsome face.
“Now, now, my friend, you know I never compromise in matters of art. As you're no doubt aware, I paint those dreary society stalwarts and their charming cherubs solely because of the challenge to my technique; not for the few pennies their parents bestow upon me...” At that precise moment, Julian pretended to consult his gold pocket watch, and turned it around until the sun's rays glanced off its ornate cover. We laughed at his playful self-mockery. Julian's smile faded a little as he glanced at Alatiel's blank expression.
“Anyhow, the scoundrel made me a peace offering. Said he bought her for a sovereign, from some old crone in the East End.”
I spoke up, and every head turned my way.
“But surely no mother would ever sell her child?”
Julian became serious, for once, his voice almost plaintive.
“My dear Helena, even a mother's love has its price...especially in the places Salazar haunts.”
The mood had darkened, and Julian attempted to lift the gloom once more by making a show of choosing which of his friends would be the first to make use of Alatiel. You see, this was how they worked - I had witnessed it a few times before now - one of the circle would find a 'stunner' amongst the city's waifs and strays and they'd pass her along between them, like a mysterious parcel excited children long to unwrap at birthday parties. Soon enough, they would tire of the game. Granted, they only used the young women as subject or inspiration for painting and poetry – at least that is what I, in my innocence, believed - but afterwards the models were dismissed with a few coins and they would return to their miserable, poverty-stricken lives. I had never been struck by this heartlessness until that day.
Perhaps my sentimental, self-indulgent empathy was wasted on this particular unfortunate; as I tried to look upon Alatiel's countenance again, sunlight drained the little colour her skin possessed and made her appear featureless, somehow. But my obvious unease did not concern her and instead she turned to face her captive audience. In that instant, I imagined I saw her, not as she really was, but as she appeared to them: Alatiel was the mirror in which they saw themselves. She would be whatever her admirers wanted her to be.
Then, the spell was broken as Julian's raised voice ended my reverie. He spoke winningly enough but his words were wasted on the others. Finally, with good-humoured mock protests hanging in the air, he allowed Daniele Navarro to lead her away. Alatiel looked back – just once – and perhaps she saw us as we really were: Julian, troubled or guilt-ridden; Matthew, looking for all the world as if he were in love; and I, betrayed by my own face, the shameless fascination I displayed for her imperious majesty.