A Most Unexpected Exhibition
With no idea what they were waiting to see, Adelphi Vaudeville’s guests formed a queue alongside the blacked out windows of the gallery. They clustered together like a flock of birds, shifting from one foot to the other. Heels clicked and clacked against the damp pavement. Furs and silks were clutched tighter with every unforgiving breeze cast forward from the sea. As the wind dropped, waves whispered from a distance, adding to the murmurs of the waiting crowd.
“What do you suppose this is all about?” asked a man in a top hat, as he passed a hipflask to another man in a grey suit.
“No idea, old chap. I only received the invitation yesterday.” He took a gulp and winced as he swallowed.
The fumes from the scotch mingled with the cigar smoke above their heads, invading the scents of sweet candies and vinegar that were still melting away from the day.
The small crowd throbbed as it waited. They swayed to an unheard jazz song playing on the salted air and carried between them on their champagne breath. From beyond the glass fronted gallery, a woman in a shimmering pink dress swore she could hear strains of string music from beyond the curtains. At her words, others claimed they could detect tinkling pinpricks of piano and the low moans of an oboe.
A trio of girls in tasselled skirts edged towards the man in the grey suit, their rows of white teeth sparkling under the street lamp.
“What did it say?” they asked. “Your invitation?”
The man in grey waited, taking in the eager faces of his audience, and then reached into his jacket. He plucked a small white card from the inner pocket, edged with a rainbow of ink that undulated in the moonlight. He held it aloft in his hand, as if it was a butterfly, before he turned it round with a flourish. He held it close to his face as he read.
“’A thing of beauty is a thing to be cherished and only shared with those who appreciate true beauty. With this is in mind, you have been chosen to attend an exhibition of renowned artist, Adelphi Vaudeville. Please arrive at the address below by midnight on June 6th. Beauty is the order of the day.’“
The trio of girls shrieked as he finished his recitation. “Our said the same! Just exactly the same!”
The man in the top hat nodded. “As did mine.”
His nods were returned by a few eavesdroppers and many coy smiles were exchanged. Recognition of their shared beauty fluttered through the crowd like moths.
A gasp from the front of the queue turned their heads. A young couple dressed all in black and standing outside the door of the gallery pointed at their toes. There was a surge forward. Shoes scuffed along the pavement as they pushed against each other.
A mosaic tile pattern of fuchsias, emeralds, golds, violets and ivories adorned the front step of the gallery, depicting an intricate image of a Roman banquet with wine and grapes and other delicacies. The couple in black continued to point, their eyes wide.
Behind the anxious crowd, the moon crossed over the roofs of silent buildings, casting a glimmering light onto the gallery. As the crowd watched, the tiles began to untangle themselves from the cement. They swirled and skipped across the front step. The colours blurred as the tiles swam in a manic rhythm. Finally, they slowed and slotted back into the grooves they had left until the image reappeared. The mosaic had changed, displaying a row of dancing girls, their legs up high in a frozen can-can.
No sooner had the tiles slipped back into place, the gallery door flew open and a pair of glimmering black shoes appeared on the front step.
The man standing in front of them had had many names during his service to Adelphi Vaudeville but, in this life, he was known as Earnest.
For every exhibition, he was provided with a costume; his clothes had been selected for a visit to the English seaside. He wore a black suit and white waistcoat with a thin black tie, much in the style of what the waiting guests would dress their butlers in. His keen eyes watched the crowd relax as they took in the sight of him. The ruse had worked. They believed he was there to serve them.
He tugged on his tie, freeing his throat to address the guests.
“Good evening,” he began. “Welcome to the exhibition of renowned artist Adelphi Vaudeville. Please, come in and prepare for a life-altering artistic experience.”
He stepped aside from the door and bowed, gesturing for them to enter with a sweep of his hand.
After a moment’s hesitation, the waiting guests began to file inside, tiptoeing over the mosaic. The whispering waves of the sea ebbed away behind them.
Once beyond the threshold, they found themselves in a narrow hallway. Black and white square tiles lay under their feet. Leafy-green walls surrounded them, punctured by protruding candles that flickered in the dark. The guests pressed against each other, laughing and apologising with every accidental caress. Once the last satin-encased toe had stepped inside, the door slammed shut behind them.
Earnest appeared at the far end of the hallway, in front of another inner door painted in green and decorated with stained glass panels. Being only a slight man, it took a while for them to notice that he had suddenly materialised from one end of the passage to the other. Only a shriek from a woman with dark eyes and a feathered hat revealed him.
“Ladies and gentleman,” he called out, over their heads. “Beyond this door, you will be prepared for the exhibition.”
“Prepared?” A man with a shock of white hair and a red velvet cloak, asked. “Now what exactly do you mean by that?”
“Beauty begets beauty,” he replied, with a wink.
While the guests attempted to unravel the meaning from his words, Earnest turned to the door behind him and threw it open.
A torrent of light flooded the hallway. The guests raised their gloved hands to their eyes. As the brightness subsided, a room all in white, lined with gilded mirrors, appeared beyond the door.
Many lingered, uncertain. But the narrowness of the hallway was such that if two people began to shuffle forward, they swept others along against their will until the whole crowd poured through the doorway. And so, with a giggle from the trio of grinning girls, the last few crossed into the room and Earnest closed the door with a wave of his hand.
Alongside the hanging mirrors, long, white shelves lined the walls. Upon them, rows of bottles and jars of frosted glass glistened in the light. At the far end of the room, an enormous ivory cabinet stood like a sentinel. Inert between each mirror, dressed in black dresses and white aprons, pallid girls smiled into the centre of the room.
At the slam of the door, they began to move with the stilted precision of wind-up toys. Although dressed like house maids, they had the porcelain-skinned, red-cheeked faces of china dolls. They tottered forward. One by one, they selected guests with a tap of their hand and led them towards the mirrors, their expressions frozen in a smile.
“Here! What do you think you’re doing?” the man in the top hat cried out. His assistant had plucked his hat from his head and tossed it across the room. It landed atop the white mane of the man with the red cloak.
“My employer is very particular, Sir,” Earnest explained. He stood with his back to the door, his hands clasped behind his back.
“My goodness!” a woman in green cried, as her silver earrings were swept from her ears and flew towards a woman in black. They landed on her lobes and hung like icicles.
The assistant waved towards the cabinet at the far end of the room. It swung open with a bang. Inside was an array of silk dresses, suits lined with velvet, and furs and wraps in a multitude of patterns. Jewellery hung like crystal vines inside the doors and the base was littered with shoes of all designs. The cabinet could not have been more than an arm’s breadth wide but it bulged with more clothing than the guests had owned in a lifetime.
The assistant summoned a pair of gold earrings from the folds of the cabinet with a flick of her snowy finger and fixed them to the lady in green’s ears. She almost swooned when she caught her reflection.
“Only the best, for Adelphi Vaudeville’s guests,” Earnest whispered.
“How dare you!” a woman screamed. Her dress had been whipped from her body, revealing her ivory slip. From the cabinet, a flurry of deep reds swept into the centre of the room and then hovered over the blushing woman. Her indignation soon vanished once the lavish scarlet gown had swept down her body.
The guests allowed themselves to be tweaked and perfected. Some uttered delighted sighs or offered shy nods of approval to their silent assistants. Clouds of sweet perfumes and spicy colognes burst into the air, painting the room in vapours of orange and gold.
Earnest stopped them all with a clap of his hands. The assistants froze. The guests admired their reflections, and each other, fluttering lengthened lashes towards shining locks and brightened eyes.
“It is time,” Earnest declared from the doorway. “The exhibition is about to begin.”
He turned towards the door.
The green hallway was gone. The front door, leading to the damp street, was gone. In their place, a vast golden hall had appeared. Open-mouthed, the guests followed Earnest inside.
Achromatic tiles gave way to caramel-brown floorboards. Above the heads of the crowd, chandeliers hung like the boughs of a tree. Enormous canvasses adorned the walls, each one housed by an ornate wooden frame.
“What sort of an exhibition is this?” a man’s voice boomed.
Every canvas was blank.
Angry faces turned towards Earnest. He stood by the door, his expression as blank as the pictures in the gallery. He stared across the room, into the pale threads of a canvas opposite him. Then, on receipt of some unseen cue, he spoke.
“Ladies and gentleman, your host, renowned artist Adelphi Vaudeville.”
The canvas that Earnest had fixed his eyes upon swung away from the wall, revealing a hollow space beyond it.
A figure stepped forth from the dark. Draped in a white tunic and billowing white trousers, Aldephi Vaudeville descended from the edges of the picture frame. His skin matched the golden-brown of the gallery floor. As he surveyed the guests, his eyes, housed by camel-like lashes, flashed in changing tones, reminiscent of the dancing tiles on the front step. His thick lips offered a brief smile.
“Welcome, my friends.” He spoke in a whisper, forcing his listeners into a strained silence. “I am blessed by your presence here tonight.”
He glided into the centre of the gallery, emitting a scent of cinnamon as he moved. His eyes rested on every made-up face around him.
“I am truly honoured to call you my guests. My beautiful guests.” He lingered over the words, exposing a fleshy tongue.
As he neared the crowd, his broad stature dwarfed those standing close to him. But in contrast to his looming figure, his hands moved with a hypnotic grace. They continued to wave and curl in the air, even when the rest of him had stilled.
The appearance of the artist prickled the nerves of some of the guests. They edged towards the door, their draping jewels betraying each movement. Earnest blocked the way out. He kept his eyes tipped to the floor.
The man in the grey suit, wearing a different tie to the one he arrived in, was the first to summon the courage to speak.
“Look here,” he said, creeping forward. “I think we’re owed an explanation. We’ve been poked and prodded by those … ladies out there. And now we’re presented with an empty gallery.”
“Empty?” Vaudeville closed his mouth around the word with care. He took a long look, from one side of the room to the other. “But this gallery has never been so full of beauty, never so vibrant with colour, never so awash with art. And, may I say …”
He stepped towards the trio of grinning girls, their white teeth shades whiter than they had been before. “My assistants have done a marvellous job.”
The girls’ laughter pealed across the room. They edged closer to Vaudeville, like insects nearing lamplight.
He twirled his serpentine fingers towards their smiles. “Let me show you the true art of Adelphi Vaudeville.”
With a flick of his forefinger, the girls fell to the ground.
It was as if an invisible lasso had been thrown around them. They lay almost on top of each other, their giggles replaced with screams as they were pressed tighter together. Then, the rope was pulled and the girls were dragged along the floorboards, their painted nails scratching at the wood as they attempted to slow themselves.
Vaudeville raised his palm and the girls were lifted from the ground, towards a large, rectangular canvas.
Other guests began to cry out in horror. Some looked to Earnest but he had turned his face away.
With a final flourish of his fist, Vaudeville cast the girls higher, into the canvas, until a fountain of red sprang from the frame, colouring the floor below with crimson drops.
The blank canvas was gone. Instead, the artist and the guests found themselves staring at an oil painting of three girls entwined together in a twister of silk and pearls, their faces frozen in a scream. Red drips leaked from the edge of the canvas, as loud as a ticking clock.
With a wail, the spell of shock was broken and the terrified guests surged towards the door. Two men in top hats and tails tore Earnest from his post in an attempt to escape. But the door he had been guarding was now merely an image, painted onto the wall in a flawless depiction of wood and stained glass. They were trapped.
“Do not run, my friends,” Vaudeville cried. “I can immortalise you.”
The hysterical crowd clawed the walls, searching for an exit, while attempting to stay as far from the artist as they could. But his long fingers twitched and beckoned. One by one, invisible strings swept the guests into the air.
The man in the grey suit was tied by his wrists and ankles, spreading his body wide. The last sound he heard was his back breaking as he smashed against a canvas. A painting of an open-mouthed gentleman mid star-jump replaced him.
The woman in gold and green was dragged upwards by her hair. Her screams were silenced as her jaw was claimed by the frame, her painted face frozen in a grimace. Her gold locks billowed behind her head.
Earnest backed against the wall, attempting to avoid the splashes of red that burst from the canvases with every violent collision of life and art. The woman in the midnight-blue gown flew past him, the folds of her dress revealing her pale legs, her arms outstretched.
For a moment, he considered grabbing her hand to stop the canvas from claiming her. The moment passed and he inched further from her grasp. The wetness of his cheek told him it was too late.
Finally, Vaudeville’s fingers ceased. Every guest was gone and every canvas filled.
The door reappeared and opened with a low creak. The assistants filed in, with buckets and sponges under their arms. Vaudeville offered them a quick nod and they spread across the gallery, dropping to their knees in front of the canvasses.
With a satisfied smile, Vaudeville walked over to Earnest.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to join them, Earnest?” He held a long finger out to Earnest’s sweat-laden brow. “I could make a masterpiece of you.”
Well-practised in steadying his voice, Earnest replied, “No, thank you, Sir. I’m far more honoured to serve in your employment.”
“As you wish.”
Reaching into his tunic, Vaudeville retrieved a pile of fabric and handed it to Earnest.
“Your costume. For the next exhibition.”
In his hands, Earnest held trousers of a rough, durable material, etched with heavy grooves in its light blue threads. With it was a strange shirt, with no buttons and short sleeves, decorated with alternating circles of colour, rippling from the centre in uneven patterns.
“We go forward next,” Vaudeville said, in answer to Earnest’s confused expression.
“Forward?” Earnest replied, his throat dry.
Vaudeville nodded. “We can’t look back anymore.”
He strode towards the door, stepping over the assistants, who were bent low, their sponges heavy with red.
Earnest clutched the costume tight in his hand, until it pained his fingers. When he looked up, the face of the woman in midnight blue stared back at him from the canvas – a smudge of red paint on her cheek.
H. D. Loughrey is a writer of literary fiction and magical realism. She has had stories published in The Sqwauk Back and Down in the Dirt magazine. Her collection of short stories, Ink That Bleeds, can be found on Amazon. She lives by the sea, with a cat and a lot of books.
Short story collection: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ink-That-Bleeds-H-Loughrey-ebook/dp/B00TOUUMOG/ref=sr_