Mason Jackson stared at the large oil painting that hung on the wall above the fireplace. It stared right back, as severe as any of Mason's former art instructors. The scowling face of the portrait dominated the room, ten times life-size. The flesh tones of the oils were so realistic that Mason could imagine the figure bursting free of the ornate wooden frame. A brass plate beneath the painting was etched with the name EPHRAM KORBAN.
Mason studied the black eyes. They were the only features that lacked the realism of the rest of the painting. The eyes were dead, dull, completely unanimated. But Mason wasn't a painter himself, so he had no grounds for criticism. Critics be damned, and he was actually more interested in the frame than the painting. It appeared to be hand-carved.
Mason glanced behind him at the people milling in the foyer. Through the open door, he could see two men in overalls unloading the wagon. A busty, fortyish woman wearing a long black dress seemed to be everywhere at once, giving orders, distributing drinks in long sweaty glasses, shaking hands. Mason moved closer to the fireplace. Though the day was warm for late October, a fire blazed in the hearth, all yellow and orange and other bright autumn colors.
The fireplace mantel was also hand-carved. Bas-relief cherubim and seraphim, plump Raphaelite forms winging among the thick curls of clouds. Mason checked his fingers to make sure they were clean, then felt among the smooth shapes. As his hands explored, he noticed someone had left a half-filled glass of red wine on the mantel. He thought of the rings the glass might leave on the white paint, like blood on virgin snow. No respect for the work of a craftsman.
He again looked at the eyes in the painting. Now Ephram Korban seemed to be gazing out across the room, brooding over these people who had dared to cross his threshold. The face was alternately compelling and repulsive. Mason touched the frame 'Lovely, isn't it?' came a woman's high voice.
Mason spun, his satchel nearly knocking over the wineglass. Before him stood the buxom woman in the black dress, her dark hair tied in a tight bun. Her smile was fixed on her face as if chiseled.
'Yes,' Mason said. 'Whoever carved this must have spent a few weeks on it.'
She giggled, a thin, artificial sound. 'I was talking about the painting, silly,' she said.
She toyed with the strand of pearls around her neck, the pearls unfashionably interrupted by a small brass locket. Her dark eyes sparkled with all the life that Korban's painted ones lacked. Mason wondered if that was something you could practice. He could picture the woman before the mirror, fastening her pearls, checking her teeth, adjusting the sparkle in her eyes.
The woman held out her hand. Mason took it, wondering if he was supposed to bow and kiss it like some French dandy in a period film. Her skin was cool. She turned his hand over and looked at his fingers, nodding. 'Ah, so you're the sculptor.'
'Calluses. We don't get many calluses here at the manor.' She leaned forward, like a conspirator. 'At least among the guests. The hired help still has to work.'
Mason nodded. He looked down at his tennis shoes with the scuffed toes, the hole in his blue jeans. The other people who rode up with him in the van wore leather pumps, Kenneth Coles, open-backed sandals, clothes out of catalogues that bore New Hampshire names. He didn't belong here. He was dirt-poor southern mill-town trash, no matter what sort of artistic airs he put on.
'You're our first sculptor in a while,' she said, her cold hand still clinging to his. 'Let's see if I have the copy memorized: 'Mason Beaufort Jackson, honors graduate from the Adderly School of the Arts, currently employed at Rayford Hosiery in Sawyer Creek, North Carolina. Winner of the 2002 Grassroots Consortium Award. Commissioned by Westridge University to create a piece for their Alumni Hall.' Now, what was the title of that piece?'
She finally let go of his hand and pressed her hand against her forehead as if reading a page in her mind, then snapped her fingers. 'Diluvium. Of course. How terribly lovely.'
Mason groaned inwardly. He hadn't realized exactly how pretentious the title sounded until hearing it pass those well-bred lips. 'Well, it was the crowd I was in at the time. Avant-garde, but still meeting for lunch at McDonald's.'
The woman emitted her bone-rattling laugh, then pointed to the canvas satchel slung over his shoulder. 'Are those your tools?'
'I'm looking forward to seeing you use them,' she said. 'I'm Mamie Goldfeld. I insist that you call me Miss Mamie.'
He glanced at Korban's portrait, then back to Miss Mamie.
'Ah, you noticed,' she said.
'I'm the last living relative of Ephram Korban. I run the manor, keeping it as an artists' retreat just the way he wanted. Master Korban always appreciated the creative spirit.'
'Was he an artist himself?'
'A frustrated one. A dilettante. He was mostly a collector.'
Mason took in more of the architectural details of the foyer. The arch over the front entrance was ten feet high, with leaded squares of glass set in a transom overhead. The foyer had a high ceiling, the white walls and trim accentuated with an oak-paneled wainscoting as high as Mason's chest. Two Ionic columns in the center of the room held a huge ceiling beam aloft.
'This is a pretty place,' Mason said, because Miss Mamie clearly expected him to say something. He'd nearly said 'lovely,' an adjective he'd never used before. Five minutes at an expensive artists' retreat and he was already putting on airs, developing a persona. God forbid he should ever actually accomplish anything. He'd be insufferable.
'I'm pleased you like it,' she said. 'Colonial revivalist. Master Korban was proud of his heritage, which is why his will stipulated that the manor be preserved intact.'
'Korban. That's Jewish, isn't it?'
'In name only. Not in spirit. He borrowed his heritage, bought what he couldn't borrow, and stole what he couldn't afford. He ended up with everything, you see.'
Mason looked at the portrait again, measured the tenacity and arrogance of the features. 'Looks like your ancestor was the kind of man who didn't take no for an answer.'
'Yes, but he was also highly generous. As you know.'
Mason smiled, though he felt as if a lizard were crawling in his throat. He was here on the dole. He could never have afforded such a retreat on his factory pay. When you got right down to it, he was a token, invited so the Korban estate and the arts council could revel in their magnanimous support of the underclass.
Miss Mamie looked past him to where a small group of guests stood talking. 'There's dear Mr. and Mrs. Abra-mov. The classical composers, you know.'
Mason didn't know, but he kept smiling just the same. The token grin of gratitude.
'Excuse me, I must say hello. Lilith will be along to show you to your room, and I do hope you enjoy your stay.'
She glanced at Korban's portrait with an expression approaching wistfulness, then was gone with a bustle of fabric. Mason gazed at the portrait again. The fire popped, sending a thick red ember up the chimney. Korban's eyes still looked dead. Mason was about to turn away to find his luggage when the fire snapped again. For the briefest of moments, the face in the portrait was superimposed over the flames like a sunset's reflection on a lake.
Mason shrugged and rubbed his eyes. He was tired, that was all. A five-hour Greyhound ride from Sawyer Creek to Black Rock, then a half hour in a van winding up mountain roads. He got dizzy all over again thinking about