In the weeks that followed, Charles felt the slowly growing presence of the painting. It seemed to be speaking to him and although Mary had said her uncle had been a kind and generous man, Charles felt his portrait was constantly challenging and accusing him.
I am not offering this bread to you, it seemed to be saying, I am showing you that although this is all the food I have in the world, I would give it to anyone in greater need. This is how you should live your life. I am asking you to be like me, to give all that you have.
He found himself focusing on the picture more and more in quiet moments when he was alone at his desk. In between meetings and phone calls he retreated to his office and contemplated the painting.
Nancy noticed how often he gazed at it when she brought him his frequent cups of coffee. “Doesn’t it depress you, looking at that gloomy old thing all day?”
“No, it doesn’t. I’m beginning to see it in quite a positive light,” he said, resting his chin on his cupped hand. “I’m starting to view it as an expression of humanity and love. Quite inspiring really.”
“Good God Charles, you’d better not let the others hear you talk like that. They’ll think you’re going soft in your old age. Anyway, I couldn’t bear to have it looking at me all the time with that pathetic maudlin expression. I call it creepy.”
And Charles looked again at the hollow face and thought he now detected a faint smile in those dark eyes.
When Mary came again, late one evening when everyone else had left for the day, she looked at the painting with approval. “He’s beginning to look happy here. I can feel it. He knows that his philosophy is starting to reach you.”
Charles laughed as they sat side by side on the sofa, drinking wine. “I have to admit he’s really grown on me. I look at him all the time while I’m working and I keep thinking I am so thankful I was able to buy this portrait. And I would hate to lose him now I know what he is saying.”
“And just what is he saying, Charles?”
After a moment’s silence, he spoke with some hesitancy. “Well, like you said before, he is saying can you be as generous as I am. I who have so little, but would still give you all that I have.”
“But that’s what I told you last time, Charles. You are just paraphrasing what I have already said. Now, I want you to tell me what he is really asking you to do.”
“What I must do? Well, I suppose he is saying ……he is saying I must change…..” Suddenly Charles felt a strange rush of emotion. It was an unknown, foreign sensation for him. He had never felt like this before. He had not experienced such deep overwhelming feelings when the twins were born, when he married Alex or even when his mother died. This was frighteningly powerful.
“My God, he is making me feel ashamed. He wants me to….to be different…act differently….” he was beginning to gulp, choke, sob. “He is asking me to give…..how can I? How can I give everything? The girls…Alex…. the business….all of this….”. He was sweating, perspiration mingling with tears, breathless and bursting.
“It’s alright, don’t get so upset.” Mary leant across and embraced him and he smelt her comforting, warm, female smell. “You don’t have to sacrifice everything and deprive your family. He knows you have loyalties and responsibilities.”
to be continued May 23