The Portrait Gallery

Herms frequently sported genitalia.

Herms frequently sported genitalia.

A description of the family portrait gallery at Ararat, the fictitious mansion at the heart of Sabra the Astonishing, on which I am, yes, still laboring.

In the far corner of the gallery, Samson Carley’s herm rose up monumental from the shadows. Star-spangled porphyry, its feldspar crystals glittered in the moonlight that poured through the glass bubble of the greenhouse’s roof and washed the long corridor with glacial flows of light. Samson Carley, the Colonel’s only son, slower than he, more honorable, bore around with him the disgrace: his sister and later his daughter, married to a big-headed, stoop-shouldered, carpet-bagging Buck. He secretly blamed Ignatius for his own inability to produce an heir, try as he might, daughter after daughter after daughter, and Flavia, taffy-haired Flavia last of all. This similitude of Samson Carley, the likeness drawn from an old daguerreotype, scowled out at the hall, and, through the fronds of an artfully positioned palm, thrust out and upwards those cobra-like genitalia with which the sculptor Bosquet had endowed him, casting a monstrous shadow that stretched menacingly towards the living room door across the dappled Aubusson runner.

bobUp and down the length of the hall, tall shadows pressed against the cylinder of quivering moonlight. Out of this attendant darkness peered anxious faces, framed in gilt and ebony and illuminated by pin lights: Halliday Carley Buck, as plush and beribboned as a chocolate box; Ignatius, jaunty, meager, and suited in rusty black, hands folded over the top of a Malaccan cane; Colonel Bob, in full Confederate regalia — dove-grey uniform, yellow silk sash into which a pistol with a mother-of-pearl handle was thrust — fingering the hilt of a tasseled sword. And in the right-hand corner of the frame of each portrait a brass plate into which was engraved the subject’s name and that of the artist, their first tentative embalmer, who, like an embalmer, improved upon their looks with his small skills.

Down this gallery, which Da Silvio often likened to a pier to which ships hung lightly moored, bobbling in the current, equipped each with its figurehead: the Ignatius, the Halliday, the Colonel B (for the portraits inclined slightly from the wall over the faded rug and so encouraged this conceit), down this gallery trembled the shaft of white iced light, penetrating as far as the front hall which, running east to west, stretched along the southern facade of the house. There it ended in a blunted curve a little to the left of the hat rack and the intestine heap of Queen-Esther’s crocheting.

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