I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild. – John Keats, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”
“So, where did you hang her?” Humphrey asked over his pipe.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The portrait, man. The Tudor lady you purchased at the auction yesterday. After what you paid I expected to see her prominently displayed.”
“Oh, that.” Llewellyn shrugged. “It was a whim.”
Humphrey laughed. “I’ve known you for over twenty-five years and I don’t recall your ever indulging such an expensive whim before.”
“That’s because you didn’t know me when I was young; when I first came to London in the sixties I was quite the rakehell.”
“I don’t believe it; you’re the steadiest man I know. Perhaps a few youthful indiscretions, but a roué? Never.”
Llewellyn grew quiet for a time and then said, “I tell you that I was the worst scoundrel in the metropolis. I was a bounder and a cad, and if not for the timely intervention of the supernatural I should have ruined the lives of many more women than I did.”
There was an uncomfortable pause, which Humphrey eventually broke with, “I have never known you as one to spin yarns, but…see here, Llewellyn, you’re a modern man and I know you believe in a rational, ordered universe. Surely you aren’t trying to convince me that you were haunted into reform as Scrooge was.”
Llewellyn laughed. “No, not haunted exactly, and to my knowledge I have never seen a ghost. But certainly you would agree that Man has much to learn about the world in which he lives. Ten years ago who would have believed that there existed invisible light rays which could penetrate solid matter and enable a photograph to be taken of the bones inside living flesh? But then Professor Roentgen discovered them, and now they are an established fact.”
“In other words, your reclamation was due to some mysterious physical phenomenon not yet understood, yet still susceptible to scientific discovery? I suppose I can accept that.”
“Well…not a physical phenomenon exactly. I would say that my reform was effected by some incomprehensible psychical power manifested by a human, or at least apparently human, being.”
“Apparently human? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“You’re aware that in prehistoric times, there was more than one human species, for example the Neanderthal man. What if one of those races survived into modern times? They might seem outwardly human but be possessed of different abilities and a longer life-span than ours.”
“Ah, you refer to the theories of your countryman Machen, that encounters with a near-human species might have given rise to legends of fairies.”
“My idea is similar, yes. Many of the old legends surrounding the Good People may thus have a basis in rational fact.”
Humphrey smiled. “Am I to believe that you were cured of your dissolute ways by the timely intervention of a fairy godmother?”
“Actually, she was a fairy harlot.”
“Oh, I say!” Humphrey protested. “This is simply too much!”
“Sit down, George,” his friend gently urged. “I shall tell you what happened, and then you can judge for yourself.”
“Very well, then,” said Humphrey dubiously.
“As you know, my father owned several mills and was quite wealthy by the time I was born; he and my mother both indulged me terribly and never heeded the scriptural advice about the rod. Accordingly, I was quite spoilt by the time I set out for the capital in ’62, determined to live my life to the fullest. My allowance was generous and I was skilled at cards, so I had plenty to spend on drink and women, and spend I did. Four years I went on thus, and most certainly would’ve ended my days with some brother’s or father’s bullet in my chest had I continued much longer.
“You have probably thought of me as a confirmed bachelor, one of those stony specimens unmoved by the charms of the fair sex, but that was certainly not so in those days; I bedded every woman I could charm or bribe into surrendering her favors, and it concerned me not if she were a professional, a dilettante or a novice so long as she was comely. But over time my appetites grew more difficult to appease, and I began to patronize specialists and expensive courtesans, and to use the more common sort of girl in a most abominable fashion.
“But finally there came to my notice a woman from my own country, herself recently arrived in town; her beauty was said to be incomparable and her skill at singing and playing unsurpassed, and I decided I must have her without delay no matter what her price. My friends warned me not to waste my time; she had spurned every offer she had received, or named prices far beyond their means, but this fixed me all the more firmly in my resolution to enjoy her.
“Accordingly, I made an appointment to meet her and found that the admiration heaped upon her was not exaggerated; she was the loveliest creature I had ever seen, with a voice like an angel, and she sang strange songs in a dialect which was unknown to me and yet hauntingly familiar. And when at last I could wait no longer and pleaded to be allowed her intimate company, the fee she required was quite dear but well within my means.
“That night was like nothing I had ever experienced; I daresay it is not possible to know any greater pleasure this side of the grave. But when I sank, exhausted and unimaginably happy, into a deep slumber beside her, my sleep was disturbed by strange phantasms and I awoke with a vague sense of dread to find myself lying on a floor in an abandoned building. I stumbled into the street in a state of great alarm and confusion, eventually finding my way home hours later and collapsing into my own bed, where I slept until late in the day.
“And since that time, my friend, I have never been able to look upon any mortal woman without comparing her to that peerless nymph and finding her as unappetizing as stale bread. I sank into a deep depression, and only pulled myself from it by devoting my life to scholarship and good works, thus becoming the person you see before you.”
Humphrey sat in silence for a very long time before asking, “Do you believe she came to town specifically to turn you from your evil ways?”
“I do believe that, yes. Perhaps she owed some ancestor of mine a favor and resolved to repay the debt by saving me from a wasted life.”
Llewellyn nodded. He rose and beckoned Humphrey into his study, where the 16th-century painting he had purchased stood on an easel. He then went into a cupboard and withdrew a portfolio containing a number of sketches; they were dated over a period of forty years, and though they demonstrated a gradual improvement in technique over the years they were unquestionably all of the same woman – she of the portrait.
“No mortal artist could possibly do her justice,” said Llewellyn with infinite sadness, “but I had no choice but to try or go mad with the need to see her face again. I wonder if the poor devil who painted that” – he gestured toward the antique – “went through the same thing I did.”
“Well, the resemblance is certainly striking, but perhaps they’re only related,” ventured Humphrey, but he knew the falsity of his words even as he spoke them. Even through the imperfect medium of pigment on wood, the subject was enchanting and he found he could not look long into her painted eyes without feeling a strange sense of longing.