Sleep, Pale Sister

Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris Read Free Book Online

Book: Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris Read Free Book Online
Authors: Joanne Harris
Tags: Fiction, General
should have hired a small gallery; somewhere like Chatham Place, perhaps. But he would never have had the cheek to place himself beneath the very noses of his Pre-Raphaelite idols. Besides, from the start he had pretensions to exhibit at the Academy, and I knew him too well to expect him to compromise for anything less. An announcement duly arrived in The Times , followed up by a number of coy invitations to various influential critics and artists (myself not included, naturally).
    I arrived at about twelve, having had lunch at a chop-house nearby, and as I approached the house I saw a small cluster of people lingering at the gate as if unsure of their welcome. I recognized Holy Hunt and Morris, scowling fiercely at some remark of Hunt’s—the woman with him was Mrs Morris: I’d have recognized her from Rossetti’s paintings any day, but personally I found her rather too much on the grand scale for my taste. Henry would be pleased, though, as long as he didn’t have to talk to them: he couldn’t abide anyone eccentric or abrupt—and from what I had heard of Morris, he wasn’t the type to suffer a pompous ass like Henry very kindly.
    There were a couple of my friends arriving in the wake of the little party, and I joined them, wondering all the while why they should have bothered to come in the first place. He was a young wretch of a poet called Finglass, she his Muse, Jenny; I grinned to hear him introduce her to the tight-lipped old biddy of a housekeeper as ‘Mrs Finglass’—the housekeeper managed to look sceptical and polite at the same time—and we went in together.
    As I entered the house it occurred to me how typical of Henry Chester it was to set up an exhibition à domicile just after his wife, by all reports, had been so ill. I am certain that he would have been most affronted if anyone had pointed it out. I knew what Henry was like: all his ex-models agreed, although he paid quite well, he was a ‘regular Tartar’ when he was painting, he fell into the most violent rages if a girl as much as shifted her posture, he forgot to allow his models to take a rest, and, on top of that, moralized most harshly to the unfortunate creatures—most of whom were on the street through no real fault of their own, and had turned to modelling as a rather better-paid and more respectable form of prostitution.
    There were maybe a dozen people in all; some peering at the framed canvasses in the passageway, but most of them in the parlour, where the bulk of the work was exhibited, with Henry in their midst talking volubly to a rapt little circle of nonentities over glasses of sherry and ratafia. He glanced at me as I came in and acknowledged me with a curt little nod. I smiled winningly, helped myself to a glass of sherry and idled over to the paintings, which were every bit as bad as I expected them to be.
    The man had no fire: his paintings were wan, limp and horribly whimsical, with the sentimentality of his commonplace soul as evident as his lack of passion. Oh, he could paint, I suppose, and the model I acknowledged to be interesting enough, but sadly lacking in colour. She was obviously his favourite, because her face stared out at me from almost all the frames. She was an odd little thing, far removed from modern standards of beauty, but with a certain mediaeval look in her childish figure and loose, pale hair. A favourite niece, perhaps? I scanned the titles inscribed on the frames: Juliet in the Tomb , Nausicaa , The Little Beggar Girl , The Cold Wedding …No wonder the girl looked so mournful: every canvas showed her in some macabre, gloomy role…dying, dead, sick, blind, abandoned…thin and piteous as a dead child, swathed in her winding-sheet as Juliet, in rags as the beggar girl, lost and frightened-looking in rich silks and velvet as Persephone .
    I was roused from my critical reverie by the door opening, and was astonished to see the girl herself come into the room. I recognized her features, but Henry

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