23 DECEMBER 1972, Page 10

Short story

The ugly picture

A,. P. Hartley

"What would you like most in the world to see? " Rupert asked his sister, Celia.

It was a fine June evening, and the two children were kneeling up against the window-seat. The full moon shone into the dimly lit room, showing up the patched chair-cover, the hole in the carpet and the chipped bookcase. Celia twisted round in her seat and gazed hard at the soles of her brother's sand-shoes, as if they might give her an idea. It was the sort of question she hated. She couldn't really think of anything. Her dog might win at a dogshow, but it was extremely unlikely, as he was a mongrel with a shaggy head, one floppy ear, and an enormous, bushy tail: probably he wouldn't even be allowed into the ring. Of course, she might guess the weight of the cake correctly at the church bazaar, but ...

" I think that's a silly question," she said, tossing the hair out of her eyes. "I can think of a better one. What would you like most in the world to be?"

Rupert pressed his nose against the window-pane. A few small children, urged on by an elder one, perhaps their sister, were straggling across the grass, dragging their spades behind them. He could easily think of so many things he wished to see happening: his pony winning the Grand National or his father getting the big prize in the football pools, so that they could all move into a nicer house on the sea-front and have lots and lots of money to spend. But to be was more difficult. If he said he didn't know, or just wanted to be like Daddy at an office, Celia would look down at him in that way she had, down her nose. She was two years older than he, and said she knew what was good for him. What would Celia like him to be? Gazing up at the moon, he had a sudden idea; "Do you mean now, or when I'm grownup?"

" Oh,grown-up will do."

Grown-up was a comfortingly long way off. He was only eight.

" Well, then, I think I would like to be a spaceman." But Celia did not seem at all impressed.

" You'd have to be terribly brave to be a spaceman, and give up eating all the things you like: ice-creams, and cakes and sardines and ... "

Rupert felt hurt. He had been so sure Celia would have been proud of him.

"Well, anyhow, there won't be any women there. Women aren't allowed to go into space."

The minute he had said it, he was sorry. Celia had slumped down on the seat, looking very small, her shoulders hunched and her head bent. Rupert pretended not to notice. A large cloud, in the shape of a woolly dog, was sailing slowly towards the moon. He glanced again at Celia. Her shoulders were shaking, and a sniffling sound was coming from her. "Maybe, by that time . . . it's such a way off, they'll have changed the rules, and I'll be able to take you with me." Celia gave a large sniff, which was almost a snort.

"I don't want to go to your silly old moon. You can go there by yourself."

"Oh, then I'll take Janice! She'd love to go. That is, if you really don't want to come," he said quickly, seeing Celia's eyes flash, though there were tears in them. "Of course, I'd like to have you best."

But Celia ignored this effort at peace.

"You know Daddy doesn't like you to play with Janice. She's a stuck-up, illmannered little girl, although she does wear smart dresses, and Mummie says you're to have nothing to do with her."

" I like her."

"Besides," added Celia vindictively, "you mightn't come back. You might get carried away in space and go round and round for ever and ever, and never see any of us any more."

At the thought of this, she began to sniff again. Why did she never have a handkerchief? Rupert fumbled for his and handed it to her, staring out of the window because she mightn't like him to see her crying. The dog-shaped cloud was now becoming very clear in outline, as it caught the moon's bright light.

"I don't know that I shall be a spaceman after all. Perhaps too many people will be doing it by then. Besides, the moon isn't really so interesting. It can't change shapes like that cloud up there. Look! It was a dog and now it's turning into a dragon."

Celia looked: "I don't see anything. It's just a cloud. It'll fade into nothing in a moment."

"... The moon can really only change into one shape: a crescent." A sudden idea struck him: "How can people walk on it, when it's like that?"

"Silly. It only looks like that to us, because we're so far away. Millions and millions of miles ..."

"Oh look, Celia! The cloud is going right into the moon. It's getting quite dark."

"There! I told you so," cried Celia triumphantly. "The cloud has gone."

"It's been swallowed up by the moon," said Rupert, rather wistfully.

Celia jumped off the window-seat.

" Come on! There's only half-an .hour till your bedtime. Let's read a book."

Rupert watched her anxiously as she opened the bookcase.

"Oh, not that one."

But he was too late. Celia had already taken out the fat red book, with the bold letters, An Illustrated History of the French Revolution, on his back, and was squatting down with it on the rug, dragging him with her.

"It's good for you to learn about real things and people. You can't always be reading story-books."

"Well, but couldn't we have A History of English Literature? That's about real people, too."

"No, we'll read this. Now, Rupert . . ." For Rupert had begun to shiver. On the next page, he knew, there'd be a picture, an ugly picture. He couldn't tell what it would be, and that somehow made it worse. He only knew that he felt frightened. Celia was turning over the page. He shut his eyes tight, putting his hands over them. Celia tried to 'pull away his fingers, but he twisted round, turning his back on her.

"I don't want to look."

"Oh, Rupert, you are a baby! Fancy being frightened of an old picture; and you wanted to be a spaceman!"

"It's just . . I know I shall see it when I am in bed." Celia sat up on her heels. "You really must get over this. You can, you know. You used to be frightened of the butcher's dog ,and now you even give him a pat."

" That's different."

"This is more important. Think of your friend Matthew. You haven't seen him for ages. Not since you came back that evening crying, because he'd been sent that picture from France. That's nearly three months ago, and you used to go nearly every day."

Rupert was silent. He was very fond of his friend Matthew, whom he looked upon as a kind of elder brother, and who lived not very far away, in a large house with a lovely view of the sea. He liked looking at Matthew's treasures: his china and glass in the cabinets so polished that you could almost see your face in them, and his silver that winked in the sun. All so different from home .. And then, there were the books! Precious books with leather bindings and gold letters, and, even better, books that he could take back with him to read. But now, all was changed. One day, he had come to tea as usual to find a large, ugly picture, with colours that glared at him — an angry, shouting crowd with clenched fists and pikes and spears that seemed to be rushing out of their frame — covering most of the wall in the beautiful drawing-room. Matthew had explained that the picture had been left to him by a very dear aunt of his, and had been painted at the time of the French Revolution. He told him all about this Revolution, beginning with the storming of the horrible prison, the Bastille, but Rupert was not able to listen. He just shut his eyes and seemed so upset that Matthevi took the picture down and turned it to the wall. "There — now you can't see it anymore." But somehow this did not make it any better because he could still see it clearly in his mind. But he couldn't tell Matthew this, when he had been so kind. Rupert shuddered. There was something about that picture which gave him the same feeling as the tramp Celia had once forced him to go up to, holding out 9 fivepenny piece. Hands seemed to come out of Matthew's picture and draw hirn into it, like the book he had once read, when the picture hanging on the wall opened and, swallowed up the two children who were looking at it. It was not at all like the picture which hung in the sitting'

room downstairs. When his father sometimes wound this up as a treat for them, everything began in a magical way to move to a lovely tinkling music played by the fisherman with the lute. The two fisher-girls mended their nets by the fountain that looked like barley-sugar, the Old man reading in the church tower nodded his head, and the little sailing ships glided slowly across the sea, leaving him Wondering where they went. "Stupid," Celia had told him, "They come round again. They're the same ships." Now she Was speaking: "You've only got to make up your mind to look Matthew's picture straight in the face, and you won't be frightened any longer."

Rupert considered this. Celia was always telling him that the best way to get over being afraid was to tackle the think that frightened you.

"You told me that about the stingingnettle, and it stung me all the same."

"Because you didn't grasp it firmly enough. It says, 'Grasp it like a man of Mettle.' Anyhow, you're getting away from the point. A picture isn't a nettle; it can't hurt you."

"Well . . . I don't want to see It."

"You'll have to now. At least, you'll have to go and see your friend Matthew. Did you know he's sprained his ankle, and he's asking for you?"

Pity for his friend struggled with Rupert's fear. Celia, seeing this, seized her advantage. "He's lying in bed all alone. He can hardly move." "Not alone. He's got his housekeeper."

Celia sat up: " Really, Rupert, I'm ashamed of you. How can you be so unkind?"

Rupert went to the window, clenching his fists: "1 didn't say I wouldn't go. Only ..."

Rupert! Rupert! Bedtime. Celia, come here! Mummie wants you." A voice not to be resisted.

"Then you'll go," Celia flung over her Shoulder, as she shut the door with a bang that seemed final.

Why did Celia always have the last Word? The next afternoon, there she was, standing in the doorway, waving to him encouragingly, her dog by her side, barking short sharp barks that sounded like "Go on—go on!" Looking back over his shoulder and dragging his feet, Rupert gave a stubborn kick to a pebble with the stub of his shoe, but the dog, thinking this was going to be a fine game, flew after the Pebble , bouncing up at Rupert and racing In front of him, urging him on. He was even forced to run, most annoying since Celia was watching, to get to the gate and Shut it on the dog, for fear it should escape and be run over by a car. A thing too terrible to think of! But he made up for this when he had turned the corner and saw a tortoise in the lane, crawling along under the shelter of a hedge. He watched it enviously; he wished he 'could move so For a little he suited his steps to it, but it turned in at the next garden gate Which was its home, and he was obliged to Walk on. Now he was getting quite near to Matthew's house. Through the trees he could see the window of the drawing room, where the ugly picture was hanging. The white gate, on which he had loved to swing, was unlatched, and he pushed it open. Soon he would be climbing the steps, eight of them, leading up to the front-door with a brass knocker, like a lion's head. The Zoo . • . When he was four and Celia was six, Celia had dared him to put his hand into the wolf's cage. "If you do, I'll be proud of you." The very words she had said before he went. Celia had been smacked, and he'd been so upset that he hadn't been able to ride on the elephant. It seemed so unfair when she'd thought the wolf was only a big dog. A sudden twist in the drive, and there was the house! But when was the lion-knocker which gleamed in the sun? Matthew and he had a secret signal. He knocked three times — and Matthew knew it was he. Now the door was open. Perhaps because he hadn't been there for so long, Matthew had forgotten. Slowly he climbed the steps. Besides his dread of the ugly picture, Matthew might be hurt that he hadn't come to see him for so long. He had meant to wait a moment, so that he could feel a little braver, before he knocked. But now. ... He stopped, tense. The floor stretching in front of him was bare. A stream of water was running across its boards from a broken vase which he had almost struck with his foot.

Bits of glass were lying in the wet. The rugs were up, not tidily rolled, lumped just anyhow, so that you could see some of the canvas on their backs. The lid of the great oak-chest was flung back, and inside it was dark and empty. Rupert heard his own voice calling, "Matthew, Matthew!"

There was no answer; only the ticking of the grandfather clock which stood, as usual, in the corner. Yet, through that ticking he thought he could hear a soft, muffled sound, coming from the drawingroom. Pushing past a table which blocked his way, its four legs in the air, he ran towards the sound. A moment later he was on his knees by the sofa where Matthew was lying, struggling with the knot that bound the handkerchief stuffed into his friend's mouth.

"That's better. Now I can speak. Sorry Rupertino, what a welcome for you!" Matthew did his best to sit up. "Now, the arms, if you can. If I'd been able to stand, those brutes — there were two of them — wouldn't have trussed me up like a turkeycock. You'll find a knife in the kitchen, if they haven't taken everything. Oh, you've got one!" For Rupert had pulled out his pocket-knife.

"It cuts well; it's a fine knife. There, now I can shake hands with you. Doris has gone out. I might have stayed tied up like this till late evening, if you hadn't come along. Bit of a shock for you. Not frightened?"

" Oh, no! But you ..." Rupert looked down at his friend's wrists. There were red marks on them where he had cut away the rope. "Matthew, you're hurt!"

"No — only a little stiff." Matthew sat up. "Look at the room! Why, Rupert, it has upset you." For Rupert, though trying to bite his lip, was trembling. He had just remembered the picture. With an effort he forced himself to turn round: the wall behind him was bare.

"Poor old chap! It must have been a shock. That's better; you were as white as a sheet." Matthew picked up the telephone: "I must call the police. Did you ever see such a mess?"

Rupert looked about him. The china cabinets were standing wide open, their treasures gone. One or two pieces lay smashed on the floor, mixed up with books and papers from the writing-table, all its drawers pulled out.

"Shall I tidy up for you?"

"No; wait till the police come. We'd better leave it as it is. Not that there's much left. Those thugs have taken everything: the silver — I heard it clinking — and the china and — " "But the picture? Surely. I mean ... that couldn't be worth much, to them, I mean ... Not like the silver."

"I wish they had thought so. But the frame is worth something. It's a beautiful frame; they may have taken it for gold." Matthew sighed. "I'm really sorry. It's the only thing I have from my aunt."

Rupert felt guilty. He should not feel happy that the picture was gone, when it made Matthew so sad.

"Is there ... Can I do anything for you?"

"You can make us some tea. We need it. I'm sorry there isn't much to eat. Not like the teas Doris usually gives you."

"I could go out and get a cake."

Matthew felt in his trouser-pocket. " I thought so, they've taken my wallet."

"I've got some money. Do let me!'

Matthew smiled: "That's the second time you've come to my rescue today. There's nothing I'd like better at the moment than a nice creamy cake. Doris will never buy me one, because she thinks it's bad for me. So it will be a real treat."

Rupert flushed with pleasure. Almost before Matthew had finished speaking, he was off. He would take the short cut along the sands, to get back to Matthew as quickly as possible. There was no one on the beach — only one old man walking up the steps, and a boy with a shrimping-net, standing on a rock; behind him a red boat. The sky was grey, and a gusty wind was blowing the sand into his eyes as he ran, so that a speed-boat, riding over the white waves, looked all blurred. So, too, did the men further along the beach, who were struggling to lift something square and large into a boat which was bobbing up and down beside a breakwater. Rupert was almost running past them when a sudden gust of wind blew away a piece of paper from the thing they were lifting, and a gleam of gold flashed out. The picture frame ... Matthew's picture! He was sure of it, though he could no longer see it, for

the men were now• in the boat, rowing away as fast as they could. He looked round: there was no one in sight. The boat was jumping up and down over the waves, getting further and further off. Desperately, he tried to shout, someone might hear — but his own voice was blown back to him. Then he remembered: the red boat! The men were rowing that way. Could he make it? If he hurried ... The boy with the shrimping-net had gone, the boat wag rocking all alone, tugging at its anchor. He knew about anchors; his father had often taken him out with the fishermen. But all by himself! Something was thumping uncomfortably inside him as he climbed in, leant over the side, pulled up the anchor and seized the oars. Now he was out on the open sea ... He must be brave. Celia was always telling him to be brave. If only the oars wouldn't be so heavy. But, turning his head, he saw the men were quite close to him; the waves were carrying him nearer. ... And then ... then, like in his Book of Adventures something would happen . . .

"Rupert! Come back! Come back at once!" Celia's voice. How had she got here?

You'll be drowned . . . Oh, Oh, you'll be dro-o-w-ned!"

It sounded so miserable, so like her own dog when he was howling, that he let his oars go for a moment. As he did so, a huge wave swept him further out, and the wailing sound grew louder. She looked so small, standing on the lonely beach, her hair blowing all over her face; trying with one hand to hold down her skirt, while she stretched out the other to him. He gave a violent tug to his oars. When he looked up again, she was no longer alone. Three men, attracted by her shouts, were hurrying towards her. Cr—Crack ... Wild screams. Rupert swung round; then nearly let fall his oars. The men's boat was going down under the sea — only the end of it showed above the waves. The men were struggling and spluttering, their heads bobbing above the water. Rupert had seen pictures of a shipwreck ... he was inside the picture . . . But now it was beginning to fade. Everything, the sea, the boat, the men, himself, were melting into one another. Their shouts sounded very faint and far off. It was growing dark . . . A sudden plop! The splash of salt water, making his eyes smart. He opened them: one oar was drifting away on the waves. With all his strength, pulling hard on the other oar with his two hands, he rowed after it. A wave was washing it towards him. He leant over the side. Another wave, higher than the boat, roaring over him. A lurch ... a bump ... and he was struggling in the water. Just in front of him something was floating. Panting, gasping, he managed to clutch hold of it and drag himself up. A rushing sound was in his ears ... and voices ... Janice's voice, very, very far away . . . Voices, voices again . . . far off, then nearer. ...

"He's coming round."

" I gave him the kiss of life!'

"Poor little chap! Janice, you've got sharp eyes. If we'd been a moment later "Your speed-boat really did speed! Work his shoulder a little more." "That's right, old fellow; cough it all up."

"He must have been chasing them. But how could he imagine? —" "Oh, the coastguards can deal with them!"

"Lucky there was that picture!"

"Keep away. Celia. Let Uncle John —" "Here, drink this, old chap."

A man's deep voice ... Matthews?

"Matthew . . ." a voice that sounded somewhere inside him, "I must get the cake . . ."

"He's speaking!" It was Janice. He could see her now. She was kneeling beside him, stroking his head. He was lying on the beach, on his stomach, and someone was rubbing his back. Behind Janice, her head hunched into her shoulders, stood Celia. Surely, she had been shouting to him ... in the boat ... Slowly, it was coming back to him. If she hadn't . . . He could not suppress a shiver of triumph. For once, she was looking suitably contrite. But her face was so white, and her shoulders were shaking.


"Lie still!" — a severe command from Janice.

"Matthew will wonder—" "I say, look here!" It was the man Janice called Uncle John, who was now bending over something. He held it high, and Rupert, with Janice supporting one elbow and frowning at Celia, who was rather hesitantly supporting the other, sat up.

"Look, Rupert! It's the picture you were clinging to. It saved your life!"

It was the picture. But what had happened? Was he dreaming? He rubbed his eyes. In one corner, instead of a clutching hand and arm rushing at him out of the frame, was something that looked like a branch — the sunlit branch of a tree."

Uncle John was speaking excitedly: "A corner of it must have struck against the rock, when the burglars' boat was sinking. I wonder ... I've often heard of such things happening, but I've never seen it before."

"Rupert, we must go home. Daddy and Mummie will be so anxious."

"One moment." He was surprised at the firmness in his voice. "It's Matthew's picture. I want to take it to Matthew."

"Rupert, old chap ,you're a little hero; but we must get you home to bed now."

"Oh, I forgot," Janice sprang up: "Rupert, this is Uncle John — you'd better do what he says."

"I'll take the picture to your Matthew, and let him know you're quite safe at the same time."

"We must go home."

"Celia is right," said Janice, adding almost in a whisper,. "for once. We're going to take you back; then Uncle John'll go to Matthew."

"But when can I --" "When you're quite rested. In a day or two ..."

In a day or two! It was a little longer than that. Nearly a whole week had passed before he was once more walking UP Matthew's steps, rather slowly, because his legs still felt a little wobbly — Celia trying hard to catch hold of his elbow and making anxious little clucking noises behind him. But he forgot all about his legs when the door opened, and there was Matthew himself — with Janice and her Uncle John — standing in the doorway, holding out his arms. Rushing forward, he thrust the large creamy cake Which he was carrying into Matthew's hands, and was immediately caught up and borne away in triumph by Uncle John into the drawing-room.

"Shut your eyes!" Janice was jumping up and down excitedly. "Put him down, Uncle John."

"Now open them!"

" Oh-h! " He stood spellbound.

" Isn't it a lovely surprise? "

"You weren't expecting that! "

"Rupert, old chap, what do you say?" "John discovered it that day on the beach."

".It must have been painted over during the French Revolution. The owners probably did it to save it from being pillaged. They thought they would be taken for true patriots."

"Certainly, if the ' sans-culottes ' entered, and saw a picture like that!"

"He doesn't quite understand." It was Matthew speaking: Rupertino, it's all your doing. I didn't know till John showed me what a very beautiful painting had been hanging all this time on my wall. Not only beautiful, but valuable, as well. It is, we are told, very old; many, many hundreds of years before you were born. You're a brave little — I should say, big chap — and I can never thank you enough, but at least I can give you your reward—" "Oh, no!" quickly from Celia: "Rupert doesn't want any reward. He likes—" ' "Shut up, Celia!" from Janice: Let Rupert speak for himself."

But Rupert couldn't speak. He just stood, looking. All he knew was that the ugly picture had vanished and now, coming towards him out of the frame, was a glorious knight in armour, riding through a wood. Proudly his spear flashed in the sun. His white horse arched its neck; his armour glittered; while ahead of him through the trees a path wound up to a fairy castle, standing defiantly on the top of a hill.

"Well," suggested Matthew, "suppose we all have some of Rupert's creamy cake. After all, that started the whole thing.

"A good idea," said Janice.