Upon the otherwise blank wall hung Ophelia. I, myself, stood approximately seven feet before it, one hand casually buried in my trouser pocket, the other loosely gripping my ebony bag. I gazed at Millais’ masterpiece with silent solemnity. In my contemplation, I had not moved for the past two hours.
How sad it is, I thought. One of the great characters in literary history left to float forever, suspended in a wasteful death. Earlier, a curator had told a stuffy sightseeing crowd that the principle notion behind the work was principiis obsta; to serve as a reminder of what could be. That statement was correct, of course; for the depiction of failure, of wastefulness, was glaring. But it was also erroneous insofar as concerned the irony of the painting that swelled in its cool ferny hues, which the curator had evidently been blind to. It was not lost on me, however; no, to me it made itself known in a long, drawling moan that issued from the parted lips of the drowned girl and that rattled harshly the very borders of its confined space. I could hear the cry so distinctly that several times I winced and once I clapped my free hand to my ear in helplessness.
Poor Millais. Each day his oil-scream was passed over and over again by one so-called expert or another who would unwittingly act as a laudator temporis acti and fail to understand the horrific nature of the image. I must admit that, at first, it did frighten me (and every so often still succeeds in sending a shiver down my spine), but I have come now to feel a sort of uncomfortable pity that I believe was the Pre-Raphaelite’s intention. It served as a reminder of duty, a call to action that the painter himself could not answer. In this manner Millais had done as De Quincey had once written and “carried his art to a point of colossal sublimity,” for nothing I could fathom could produce the same squelching sensation that churned in the pit of my stomach.
The work would have served well as the cover for The Newgate Calendar–it was the epitome of what resided within that forlorn text. Worse still, the murders and deaths mentioned in that collection were of true origin; and yet they too suffered to relate little of importance to the reader. Hardly ever were the specifics of the killings mentioned, and more often than not they were allowed only a sentence or two. Of course, it must be noted that none (so far as I have read) of the acts in that text were committed by what one could truly consider an artist. I could only imagine Leo the Tenth’s appalled countenance after perusing these follies. Ha! the word resurfaced: wasteful.
“Excuse me, sir, we are closing in ten minutes.”
I turned my head toward the source of the interruption. There before me stood a young docent. She could not have been more than thirty; her dark hair was tied back neatly; the ivory of her skin glowed against the dark folds of her attire; and her large almond eyes were attentive. Her voice had been pleasant enough, but now that I could see her face I knew that my ears had deceived me.
What a longing face she had! The withering behind her eyes was palpable so as to put me in a mourning temper. Her smile was strained, stretching across her face in rigid agony. Oh, what a poor soul to be held down so! Was she not pleading, begging for release? A living Ophelia condemned, indeed, to loiter in this wretched existence until fate set her free. Shame, shame!
“Ah, yes, quite so. Thank you, miss–”
“White. Mrs. White.”
I was struck then with the white hot lightning of brilliance. Why should I not be the one to free her? Indeed, it already seemed a fait accompli! What a perfect notion, to not only enact artful justice, but to do so for an employee who worked in the same place as which was filled with the groans of Millais. This one would be for the Pre-Raphaelite, whose death seemed only too recent; his eternal call would be answered by a successive chef-d’œuvre.
“Good eve to you then, Mrs. White,” I said.
She smiled that austere smile. “A good night to you, sir. I do hope you enjoyed the art.”
Enjoyed? I smiled pitifully at her, then tipped my hat and strode out of the Tate Britain’s empty halls.
I was greeted at once by agreeable weather. The night was thick with fog so impregnable that it was difficult to see five feet ahead. God himself is on my side, I thought. The very hands of nature were to join in the wringing!
I cautiously made my way down the steps in front of the marble building, stopped in front of a fat post slightly off to the right side (because I am right-handed), took a small mallet from my ebony bag and pocketed it. Then I waited.
Before long I could hear the easily recognizable footfall of a woman descending the steps. I kept my peace just long enough (drawing my mallet), then–as she was coming around the post–I revealed myself and clubbed her down. She made a small yelp as she fell, but it was not loud and was most definitely swallowed by the fog. I wondered if even then she knew, and understood her destiny. Opening my bag and removing my sicae, I knelt down and began to work.
Throughout the entire thing she hardly stirred. I had not hit her hard enough to kill her, rather just to daze her, and her eyes were open wide. Her mouth too, was open, and gaped soundlessly at me in silent appreciation. Her gaze unnerved me, and I thought of removing her eyes, but then I reconsidered upon the realization that it would be wrong to deny her access to the great act. She was, after all, part of the process. She moaned only after I had removed her liver, dusted it gently with my fingertips and set it beside a length of intestine; and I smiled because the sound was almost certainly her soul escaping, fleeing into the ether.
I stuck to the shadows and alleys on the way home, despite the shield fate had provided me with, for my hands and sleeves were smeared with the effort of my labour. Her name would appear in the papers tomorrow, just like the others. And just like the others, it would be unlikely that the mastery of the scene would be done justice by whichever prig wrote the column.
How lonely it is to be an artist, I thought. As I walked, I felt a sudden pang of jealousy for Mrs. White. It was true what they said, about art and about the artist himself: one is only appreciated–even noticed!–when he is dead.