It had just gone when Henry Grace arrived down to breakfast. As usual on Saturday mornings he had slept late and then taken a cold bath. It was the only day he permitted himself to do both - the rest of the week commencing two hours earlier and always including either warm baths or washes, never cold ones. However, this Saturday-morning exception was essentially part of a private religion he had scrupulously adhered to, while professing himself a practising Christian, for at least ten years. What had begun as an experiment had turned into an inflexible habit. Rare indeed were the Saturdays when he didn't indulge it, particularly in the summer. Usually they were a consequence of illness or holidays or being invited away somewhere at the weekends. Otherwise, an omission of this practice would have disturbed his mental equilibrium, made him question his moral integrity, and perhaps even doubt his sanity.
"Have Philip and Pauline left the table already?" he grumblingly asked his wife, no sooner than he had sat down and sampled a little of the mild tea she had just poured him.
"Gone over to call on Edwin," replied Mrs Grace
nonchalantly, while regaining her seat on the opposite side of the small round
table. "They're all going down to
"Ah yes!" Mr Grace affirmed. "Some pop concert in
Mrs Grace nodded in tacit confirmation while pouring herself a second cup of tea. "Let's hope the weather stays relatively fine for them anyway," she commented. "It would be a pity if they all got wet this afternoon."
Mr Grace looked meditative as he helped himself to some shredded wheat. Then, glancing through the kitchen window at a fairly ambivalent sky - half-blue and half-grey - he asked: "Did the weather forecast predict rain later on, then?"
"Yes, unfortunately it did," his wife replied in a tone of voice designed to impress upon him the fact that she would never have raised the possibility of bad weather had it not done so! There then ensued a sullen silence between them, during which only the cultured sipping of tea and the methodical munching of shredded wheat could be heard. Eventually, growing bored by it, Mrs Grace asked her husband whether he hadn't noticed a change in Pauline recently?
"Not unless you mean her greater interest in Edwin Ford than previously," he responded, briefly scanning his wife's face as though for a clue. "It's about the third time this week she's gone across to Edwin's, isn't it?"
"Fourth actually," Patricia corrected. "Three times with Philip and once on her own. It scarcely makes any sense to me."
Mr Grace meditatively chewed some more shredded wheat, before saying: "Could be she's taken a fancy to him. After all, she's not a young girl any more, is she?"
"No, but she could have taken a fancy to him before now," Mrs Grace averred. "He was always fond of her."
Mr Grace nodded his balding head. "Too damn fond of her, the way I saw it," he opined. "Had his eyes on her more often than a gentleman ought, even if he is a young one. But she was never particularly interested in him, was she? Probably more through shyness than anything else. Perhaps afraid of what she might get herself into?"
"Well, if that was the case, she's certainly not afraid of it now," Mrs Grace declared. "Quite the opposite! One feels he has become quite indispensable to her."
Pushing his cereal bowl to one side and then helping himself to a slice of plain toast, the critic murmured: "Maybe he has. Could be he can offer her something we can't."
Mrs Grace sighed knowingly at this palpable understatement, before saying: "It's curious how this change-of-heart appears to have come over her since Robert and his friends paid us that visit last month, as though their presence here had something to do with it, especially Mr Doyle, who appeared to be a great source of interest to her. Strange, but I couldn't help noticing the way she was looking at him during breakfast that Sunday - like they had something between them."
"He did seem to spend more time with her the day before than anyone else," Mr Grace admitted, while chewing. "Particularly during the afternoon, when we went for a stroll. I don't really know what they got up to in the evening, but he just might have said something to her which has a bearing on her current enthusiasm for Edwin. The fact of his being a professional writer undoubtedly contributed to Pauline's interest in him. However, I don't think we need assume the worst. I mean, he couldn't have seduced her, could he?" The critic stared fairly confidently at his wife, as though the thought of seduction was too preposterous to entertain.
Making an effort to respond to her husband's confidence with equal assurance, Mrs Grace replied: "No, I guess not. Though my intuition on the morning in question indicated that a change had come over her and that they had something between them."
"Perhaps it was leading you to imagine things, my dear?" Mr Grace suggested. "Besides, I rather doubt that Pauline would have permitted him to seduce her, even if he'd been boorish or audacious enough to attempt it. She has more sense and self-respect, as you well know. A young woman who's been as well brought-up as she has, educated at the best schools and all the rest of it, couldn't possibly allow herself to be seduced by a complete stranger in her own home in close proximity to us! Anyway, she was in Philip and Edwin's company throughout the greater part of the previous evening, wasn't she?"
"So I presume," Mrs Grace replied without any great confidence.
"A pity I wasn't there to keep an eye on them all," Mr Grace remarked on a regretful note. "Something could have happened while they were down at 'The Burning Bush' - something between Edwin and her, I mean."
"Or between Mr Doyle and her," Patricia Grace conjectured, recalling their visit to the local pub.
"Well, I should sincerely hope she would have more sense than to get involved with him!" Mr Grace strongly objected, snorting superciliously. "His behaviour here, particularly during the Saturday afternoon, was anything but commendable! His insolence was enough to make me lose my temper at one point. I could have thrown him out of the bloody house there and then. Indeed, had I not been so determined to maintain the best possible relations with young Mr Harding, I would almost certainly have ordered him to leave. As it was, I had no option but to tolerate his presence in my home for the rest of the weekend - the presence of a Socialistic Transcendentalist, as I think he called himself! And a champion of abstract art, to boot! Really, I'm most disappointed with Harding for having brought such a bloody scoundrel along with him! He could have spared me that ordeal, surely?"
Mrs Grace did her best, in spite of a feeling of revulsion concerning her husband's ulterior motives for befriending the painter, to appear sympathetic. "I expect he was as much upset by the man's behaviour as you were, not being a Socialistic Transcendentalist, or whatever it was, either," she said. "But really, Henry, if it wasn't your policy to be so discreet, where the seduction of such potential victims of your sexual appetites as Harding is concerned, he could have come up here on his own. After all, you did invite him to bring one or two friends, didn't you?"
"Yes, I'm perfectly well aware of the fact!" Mr Grace sternly replied, betraying signs of impatience with his wife's irony. "But not such bloody friends as them! I can assure you that I wasn't particularly impressed by his girlfriend either, and not only for the obvious reasons! D'you know, she had the nerve to side with Mr Doyle against me in the presence of Robert while we were out in the garden after tea that evening! Defending his transcendental nonsense after the painter had tactfully apologized to me about it. And the poor slob was further put out by that - as, of course, was I, though I did my best to conceal the fact, retaining as calm a demeanour as possible for fear that a show of ill-humour would only have alienated him from me. But that young woman secretly made my blood boil! She was almost as obnoxious as the writer, what with her arrogant sexuality. I wonder what Harding could have seen in her, apart from the obvious? Bad enough that he should have had a girlfriend at all, of course. Yet I couldn't very well tell him so, could I?"
With a wry smile, Mrs Grace said: "Maybe you will in due course, since you usually get your way, don't you? Still, now that you remind me about the girl, I do recall seeing her with Mr Doyle on the Sunday morning. They were down by the goldfish pond, sitting there and talking to each other, or so it appeared; though, for all I know, Miss Jackson may well have had the writer's hand up her short skirt, considering the considerable expanse of leg she was showing off at the time! However, she got up and returned to the house as soon as she saw me with the washing. Rather curious really, like she had a guilty conscience about something. To be honest, I didn't think all that much of it at the time. Yet the fact that they were together in such a remote spot can't be without some sexual significance, can it? One wonders what they could have been discussing."
"Nothing that we should care to hear, I expect," Mr Grace
declared testily, while helping himself to another slice of plain toast. "Probably something to do with the
hypothetical future transmutation of men into fairies, or some such bloody
nonsense! They might even have been
holding an outdoor séance, for all we know.
Or meditating even - assuming you can talk and meditate
simultaneously.... That's the trouble with our Philip, you know. Much too susceptible to the latest silly
crazes in religion and the like! Not a
typical Grace by any means! Only too
ready to lend an ear to the likes of that writer. A shame really, since I had high hopes for
the lad. Still have, to some extent,
though I fear he'll continue to turn a deaf ear to my advice, wasting his time
with pseudo-beliefs and false prophets!
Not that I'd particularly approve of his becoming more like young Edwin
Ford and turning away from religion altogether.
Oh, no! One extreme would be no
better than another, so far as I'm concerned.
Fortunately, however, Edwin doesn't seem to have all that much influence
on him, so I don't think we need fear anything there. We don't want a Red son in the family, do
we? Not after all we've done for him
over the years. He has little reason to
consider himself a proletarian anyway.
No more, for that matter, than Edwin, who, despite his considerable
arrogance, comes from a perfectly respectable upper-middle-class family. How it is that Ford's boy has turned out the way he
appears to have done, I don't pretend to know; though I suspect he's in
youthful rebellion against his father, who, as you well know, was always a good
Tory - at times a little too sodding good, if his sexual predilections were
anything to judge by! But that's as it
should be. In all probability, his son
will come to his political senses in due course, once he completes his studies
"No, I suppose not," Mrs Grace reluctantly conceded, wondering exactly what he meant by the phrase 'got on'. "You certainly wouldn't have made a reputation for yourself by attacking modern art, that's for sure! But let's hope, anyway, that our daughter won't become too influenced by Edwin's revolutionary ideas in Philip's stead. It wouldn't do to have a Red daughter in the family either, would it?"
"Of course not!" bellowed Mr Grace in exasperation. "But, frankly, I don't think she's any more susceptible to that kind of thing than Philip. If anything, she's more likely to become an airy-fairy transcendentalist and take-up with meditation instead, like her brother. I needn't remind you of how much time she spent listening to Harding's damn neighbour delivering his impromptu sermon that Saturday! And if he had any effect on Edwin as well, then it could be that young Ford has modified his views in the meantime, and so become more ideologically acceptable to her in consequence. Who knows, but maybe we should ask her personally - assuming we get an opportunity to, that is?" He helped himself to a third slice of toast and requested another cup of tea, which his wife dutifully procured him. He wasn't particularly interested in discussing Pauline's doings. God knows, she was old enough to look after herself, wasn't she? If she had discovered something new in Edwin, good fucking luck to her! Let her make the most of it before he went back to Cambridge in a few weeks' time and she went down to London in order, presumably, to begin her literary studies in the big bad metropolis. They needn't fear that he would remould her beliefs or personality in that short space of time! She had a mind of her own anyway. Marxist sentiments wouldn't have becomed her, and so on. Mr Grace wasn't for spoiling his breakfast over any change of heart which had come over his daughter in recent weeks. There were more important things to consider - like, for instance, Robert Harding. "By the way," he continued, determined to shift the conversation onto that track, "I take it you're prepared to visit Harding's studio next week to sit for the portrait of you that I've commissioned from him. Now that the one of Pauline is completed and hanging gracefully - no pun intended! - beside the others in our new family portrait gallery, he'll be anxious to see you and continue with his work."
Mrs Grace frowned slightly and sighed her dissatisfaction at the prospect of having to spend a week or more in the painter's dubious company, doing nothing but sitting still. "Oh, Henry, is it really necessary for me to go?" she protested. "Aren't the three portraits already completed by him quite sufficient?"
"No, I promised him work on a portrait of you and I intend to keep my promise!" Mr Grace spat back. "If you don't go, he'll be sorely disappointed. It would amount to a breach of contract."
His wife was still far from convinced. "But think of all the expense this is amounting to, Henry," she objected. "Another £600 for the sake of gaining further power over him, making him more indebted to you? Really, it's quite reckless!"
"You know perfectly well I can afford it," Mr Grace asseverated, visibly unmoved by his wife's misgivings. "I could afford ten such portraits if necessary. But it won't be necessary, my dear. After the one of you is completed, I shall visit him in person the following week, and during that time - a time when the pair of us will be quite alone together - I'll seduce him into giving me what I really want from him. And I shall do so partly on the strength of my previous commissions and partly on the strength of the family portrait I should like him to execute in due course. Such a tempting carrot as that, valued at around £2,000, can hardly fail to lure the donkey after it. If he refuses me my personal satisfaction in the matter, he'll be deprived of this further commission and threatened with the harshest public criticism his work has ever received! Rather than promising to make his reputation as a great painter, a champion of genuine art, or whatever it is he considers himself to be, I shall set about undermining what little reputation he already has and thereby completely ruin his career, branding him with hidebound conservatism!"
Mrs Grace winced and shook her bushy head. "Really, Henry, you're too cruel!" she exclaimed.
"Cruel?" Mr Grace echoed incredulously. "Not at all! Kind to myself would be closer the mark, my
dear. And whether he appreciates it or
not, kind to him as well! The deal seems
to me a very good one so far as he is concerned, much better than I'd be
prepared to enter into with anyone else.... You don't realize how important
he's become to me, Patricia, I who may never have the good fortune to fall in
love with anyone like him again. Ever
since I first clapped eyes on his photograph in one of those
Mr Grace was unmoved by his wife's manifest hurt. "It's my last gamble, my final opportunity to reap the dividends of my bent," he ironically explained. "Surely you can't refuse me your co-operation at this critical juncture, Patricia, now that I've almost achieved my objectives?"
There were tears of anguish in Mrs Grace's eyes as she responded with: "But, Henry, the prospect of sitting there for as long as it takes him to do my portrait and keeping absolutely quiet about your sexual designs, not speaking a word about your plan of seduction - really, it's too terrible, too ... nerve-racking! I don't think I can do it."
"Of course you can do it," Mr Grace assured her in his most persuasively encouraging tone. He was almost on the point of holding her hand. "You've helped me before now, so why shouldn't you continue to be of service? After all, you're not entirely without your own little ... foibles in such matters. Come now, be realistic! You wouldn't want us to part company after all these years, would you? Not, surely, when you haven't got anywhere better to go?"
These inherently rhetorical questions, threatening and sinister, seemed to have the desired effect on Patricia Grace. For she suddenly snapped awake, as it were, from her self-pity, wiped the remaining tears from her eyes, and gently shook her head. Reality had brutally returned to her, its disagreeable face reminding her of her limitations in defying it. In truth, she lacked the courage to start a new life now, to completely sever connections with her husband and begin the half-life of a spinsterish divorcee - poor and alone. She had no near or living relatives to fall back on, no real resources of her own, and the one man who might have provided a romantic solution to her problems was ... well, she had no way of telling where he was or what he was doing, so long was it since she had heard anything from him. Willy-nilly, she was a kind of slave to her husband whether or not she liked the fact, and he never lost an opportunity in reminding her when circumstances required. Accordingly, she had no alternative but to comply with his demands.
"So you're agreed to the sitting, then?" he concluded.
"Yes, if it helps to make things any easier for you," she dutifully replied.
"Oh, I'm sure it will!" Mr Grace declared excitedly. "For I have great confidence in my little strategy. What with the carrot of this further commission and the promise of good reviews to-come, I'm quite convinced that the donkey will do as required. After all, what alternative does he bloody-well have, eh?" There was a broad smile of satisfaction on the critic's narrow face - a smile fostered as much on happy expectations as on shrewd manoeuvrings. He was experienced at this kind of game and usually succeeded in getting his way. "Not that this particular donkey is an especially good painter," he continued, having washed down his last mouthful of chewed toast with the remaining by-now lukewarm tea in his cup. "I've known many better, I can tell you! Some worse too, of course, though not a great deal so. At best, Harding is competent and tasteful, but totally without distinction! There are plenty of others who would be just as capable of doing what he does. Unlike him, however, they'd be quite incapable of arousing my interest on other than strictly aesthetic grounds. And that, precisely, is his chief advantage - namely his sexual appeal to me. As an artist, no, I cannot claim to admire him, much as I may feign something approximating to admiration when in his company. His work is fundamentally soulless, if you know what I mean. Too tediously academic. It lacks fire, passion, individuality, technical inventiveness, and conceptual integrity - all the things, in short, which make for great art. We are painted as cadavers instead of human beings, social automatons instead of self-willed individuals. His brush is tarnished by all the worst hallmarks of modernity. He'll never achieve anything great, not even if he eventually transfers from the canvas to the mural, which seems rather unlikely if you ask me, given his fear of decadence."
"But, presumably, you'll still continue to befriend him?" Mrs Grace conjectured.
"Provided he gives me what I'm really after," Mr Grace responded. "Just as you'll continue to befriend me, won't you, Patricia?"
"If you insist, Henry."
The critic sighed his relief and smiled a modest gratitude. "Good, that's as it should be," he concluded.
There then ensued a resentful silence on Mrs Grace's part, during which time she began to clear away the breakfast things.
"By the way, was there any post for me this morning?" her husband wanted to know.
"Just this." She handed him a large brown envelope with a typed address on the front. It had been resting on the sideboard to his right.
"Ah, so someone has been thinking of me recently!" he mused, opening it with the aid of a large bread knife. "Another tedious set of proofs to read, I expect. Either that or a boring account of ...” His voice abruptly ceased, and it was several seconds later before he resumed with: "Good God, just take a look at this!"
Mrs Grace went across to where he was sitting and stared down over his shoulder at the contents of the envelope, now spread out on the table before him. She could scarcely believe her eyes. "Why, it's Pauline!" she cried.
"Yes, so it is," Mr Grace nervously confirmed. "I don't understand."
His wife bent closer. "But what's she doing there like that?" she exclaimed.
It wasn't a question Henry Grace could be expected to answer. For there, right before his startled eyes, Pauline was exhibited in all manner of erotic nude or semi-nude poses on at least thirty colour photographs. There wasn't a photograph on the table in which she wasn't showing off some private part of her anatomy, and doing so, in no less than twelve of them, in the company of an equally pornographic Carol Jackson! Really, it was too disgraceful to behold, especially since Pauline had the look of a person enjoying every damn moment of being photographed in such palpably erotic postures! It gave her parents something like the shock of their lives - Mr Grace turning bright red with embarrassment, his wife becoming deathly pale with revulsion. What-on-earth could it all mean? For Pauline had made no mention of having been photographed to them.... Not that that seemed particularly surprising when one considered the scandalous nature of the photographs in question! And Miss Jackson, what could she be doing there, apart, that is, from showing off everything she naturally possessed?
It was Mrs Grace who first recovered from the shock of such a spectacle and thereupon pointed out a large typed letter which lay partially buried beneath the mass of enigmatic photos. Obediently, her husband extricated it from its hiding place and, briefly scanning the address and telephone number of its sender, proceeded to read:-
Enclosed for your careful consideration is a selection of photos from a modelling session I recently had the pleasure of conducting with your daughter, in the company of one of my best models, Miss Carol Jackson. I rather doubt they will make a particularly favourable impression on you, since that is not, of course, my principal concern. If you haven't already guessed by now, it is to prevent you from making a fool of Robert Harding by exploiting him to your own ends, which, as I am only too well aware from personal experience, are purely carnal. Also aware of this are Miss Jackson and Mr Doyle, both of whom made your acquaintance last month and, I regret to say, became mutually suspicious of your motives for befriending the painter, who, so I am informed, is neither homosexual nor bisexual but conventionally heterosexual. It is therefore extremely unlikely that he would take kindly to your sexual designs. Neither of course did I - an old acquaintance of yours who, as you'll probably recall, was unable to reconcile himself to your desires when, much admired for the wrong reasons, he was requested, nay, instructed to do so!
That, believe it or not, was several years ago, when the said-acquaintance had just begun to establish himself in his chosen profession and had yet to acquire the fame and prestige to which he has since grown so painfully accustomed. It was at that time, if you remember, that you sent me a series of threatening letters in order, as you facetiously put it, 'to make (me) see sense and become more reasonable'. You could not, according to this same letter, avoid the consequences of having 'fallen in love' with me (you had a marked talent for hyperbole, probably still have, for all I know), and would not be able to tolerate living unless I satisfied your desires, which then, as now, were unequivocally anal.
I have the letter in question before me as I write, and could quote quite copiously from it if I really wanted to, that's to say, if it were necessary in order to convince you that I am not imagining things. And, of course, I have the others to-hand as well - some seven in all, which more or less reiterate your plea for clemency, each one a little more forcefully and even shamelessly than its immediate precursor. No, it won't be necessary for me to quote from any of these either, as I am sure you will agree. Better to let sleeping dogs lie, as they say. And so I will, provided you comply with my request, which is this: to leave Robert Harding alone - absolutely alone!
If you are planning any further commissions for him, you must cancel them immediately. Otherwise I shall be obliged to have examples of these photographs - which are merely a selection of the ones in my possession - circulated to various magazines with which I have commercial contacts, and published in due course - with the consent, needless to say, of the young women involved. Now when these photographs appear in public, i.e. are published, I shall draw them to the attention of certain persons with whom you are or were associated, sending copies of the relevant magazines to individuals who could only be scandalized by knowledge of the fact that your daughter has turned to pornographic modelling, and who would almost certainly not wish to associate with you again. There are, I realize, quite a number of persons for whom the spectacle of Pauline Grace, nude and alluring in one or another of the more exotic men's magazines, would excite scepticism concerning the probity of her upbringing and the genuineness of her modesty. Your old colleague Martin Howard would certainly be surprised, unable, one feels, to reconcile the daughter of the renowned art critic, Henry Grace, with the ostensible righteousness of the critic himself. He would surely wonder how you had allowed or encouraged such a thing to happen! No doubt, you would feel acutely embarrassed the next time your paths crossed - assuming they ever did! And the same, of course, applies to so many eminent, respectable, God-fearing persons known to you, who have no sympathy for pornography.
But don't think I would stop there! I would also make the letters from you at the height of your infatuation with me known to the world at large, revealing you as the two-faced, double-dealing hypocrite you really are, and thus exposing your private life to public scrutiny - the lie of your marriage to Patricia and the sordid motives behind your current enthusiasm for Harding's work duly accompanying my in-depth exposé, thereby bringing further infamy upon your name.
Last, but by no means least, I would ensure that Robert Harding received copies of your letters to me, so that he could be left in absolutely no doubt as to the truth of your relationship with him as well. Thus, one way or another, Henry, your life would never be quite the same again, neither personally nor professionally.
So either you immediately break off relations with the painter, whose naiveté even I find quite touching, or I shall be obliged to carry out these threats. The decision is entirely yours - one which I trust you will inform me about in due course.
If, however, you do decide to comply, then rest assured that none of these erotic photos and none of your sordid letters to me will ever get into public hands.
Donald J. Prescott.
By the time he had got to the end of this harrowing letter, Henry Grace was trembling like a battered leaf in a mid-October gale and was almost on the verge of tears. Never had he been threatened in so frank a manner in his entire life, and it was as much as he could do to take the threat seriously. It was more like a bad dream. He wasn't sure that he was really awake, sitting in his familiar kitchen with his wife standing behind him and the smell of burnt toast in the air. But there, in front of his scandalized eyes, lay the torn envelope, the letter, and the pile of colour photographs, and they could not be wished away, like a bad dream sometimes could. There they stayed, staring back at him, it seemed, with a consciousness of their own, peculiarly defiant and sinister. They had to be taken seriously.
"Damn the bastard!" exclaimed Mr Grace, as the tension created by the shocked silence became too much for him. "Why does he have to interfere in my affairs like this? What right has he to stir up the past? It's positively vile!"
"It would be viler still if he felt obliged to carry out his threats," Mrs Grace solemnly averred.
"But how in God's name did Pauline fall into the clutches of that frigging wanker in the first place?" Mr Grace shouted, beside himself with exasperation.
"Evidently whilst at
Mr Grace reflected a moment, then shook his head. "But I still don't understand," he confessed. "I mean, a sensible well-bred young woman like her - it's scandalous! Just think what would happen if all this got into the wrong hands! Can you imagine how I'd feel if the local vicar was sent a copy of one of those foul sex magazines with pictures of my daughter spread-eagled all over the place? I mean, that could be what the bastard was intimating at, couldn't it? One isn't to know what he'd do. No, I can't risk it. I shall have to break off ties with Harding immediately, tell him I've changed my mind about the remaining commissions.... Or perhaps you would? Yes, you could phone him in my stead and cancel your sitting next week. I don't think I could face-up to it, not even on the phone. Oh God, why did he have to bring that Andrew Doyle cad here? It's all his fault, I'm convinced of it. It's because of him that Pauline has allowed herself to be demeaned like this. Now I begin to understand the change which has come over her recently, I begin to understand it all too clearly! He must have seduced her, the rotter! Seduced her while she was out of our sight, either here or in Richmond. Now you can see why Edwin has become more important to her. She has lost her innocence. Ah, Christ, what a tragedy! Why-the-devil did I ever get involved with Harding in the first place? Why-the-devil did I allow all this to happen?"
Mrs Grace was still standing behind her husband, silent and still, her feelings torn between pity and contempt - contempt, above all, for his perverse self-pity, pity for herself for being married to such a man. It was difficult not to tell him it served him bloody-well right for the vile thing he had intended to do to Mr Harding - exploiting the young man's professional vanity in the interests of his own sexual gratification. Very difficult indeed! Yet as she walked towards the telephone in the adjoining room to let the painter know of her husband's decision, this difficulty was offset by the sudden realization that she would not now have to go to Richmond, the following week, after all, and would therefore be spared the ordeal she had so painfully anticipated at breakfast. It was almost as difficult not to express her sudden relief of the fact, and thereby risk inciting her husband's wrath. At least there was something in it for her!
"His number's by the phone," Mr Grace called after her as she approached the receiver. "And don't tell him I told you to ring. If he asks for me, say I'm out." He sat, pale and trembling, slouched across the table like a man suffering from some terribly enervating illness, possibly glandular fever. The life-force had withered away and he felt as though twenty years older - nearer eighty than sixty. The bitter disappointment of having to comply with Prescott's demands had drained him of pride, reduced him to despair. He could still hardly believe it, believe that the photographer had the power to carry out his threats, even though all the evidence to the contrary was right there in front of him and refused, like his bitter feelings, to disappear. Instinctively, he reached for the bread knife, but ...
"Hello, is Mr Harding there, please?"
"Ah, good morning, Robert! It's Patricia Grace here ..."
"Oh, good morning, Mrs Grace! How nice of you to ring."
There was a moment's embarrassing silence before she could pluck up the courage to say, albeit in a slightly nervous tone-of-voice: "Er, with reference to the impending portrait of me, Robert, my husband and I have regretfully come to the decision that we shall not now be requiring it. We are of course extremely grateful to you for the three excellent portraits already completed, which we feel will be quite sufficient. Accordingly, I must therefore cancel our studio arrangements for next week."
After a stunned silence, Harding responded with a faint: "Oh, I see." He could scarcely believe his ears. He had been so looking forward to seeing Mrs Grace and perhaps inducing her to take off her clothes for him and transfer her sitting into a lying which would perhaps enable him to explore her flesh in more concrete terms - terms such that would benefit him in more than a financial sense. "Does this mean I won't be seeing either of you again?" he asked, almost pathetically.
"Well, possibly not," she replied, mustering all the diplomatic tact at her disposal at this moment. "It will depend on whether or not my husband wishes to commission any additional portraits from you in future. But at present, he is quite satisfied with the ones he has. If he changes his mind over the coming weeks, he'll doubtless get in touch with you. For the time being, however, I think you can rest on your laurels, as it were, and dedicate your talents to someone or something else. We are, however, most grateful to you for having spent so much time and care on us, and wish you every success in the future."
Harding offered her a muted wail of thanks, despite his manifest disappointment. All his fondest hopes had been dashed. He would probably never see her again.
"Well, goodbye, Robert!"
"Yes, goodbye, Patricia! I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed being associated with you."
She replaced the receiver with a heartfelt sigh and slowly headed back towards the kitchen. "Now you had better destroy Prescott's letter and all those dirty photos, Henry, before anyone else sees them," she suggested, as she stepped across the threshold into the larger of the two rooms with a look of determination on her pallid face. But, to her surprise, she found that he had already done so. For all but a few of them were torn into tiny pieces and lying at the bottom of the wastepaper bin, while the letter itself lay in a crumpled mess of partially torn paper by his feet.
A split second later Henry Grace was himself lying under the table with the bread knife through his neck and a severed juggler spurting bright-red blood across the kitchen floor. He seemed to be staring emptily or perhaps even reproachfully at Patricia Grace, as she backed away from him with a sharp look of revulsion on her face. But his eyes didn't follow her and she realized, soon enough, that he was losing consciousness and on the threshold of death, if not already across it.
With a cry of triumph, she picked up what remained of the letter, turned on her heels and rushed back into the adjoining room again in order to make another call. But it wasn't the ambulance service, or even the police, whom she immediately dialled. It was Donald Prescott, and it was with a view to not only telling him what had happened but actually visiting him in person, the following week, that she held the purring receiver up close to her ear.
This time there could be no regrets, only tears of joy!
LONDON 1980 (Revised 1981-2010)