The sky was covered with heavy grey clouds as the old man was walking up the hill, where stood a massive manor house built of stone. Its windows were like dark eyes staring into the world. Only through one came the warm glow of a crimson fire which penetrated the curtain of light autumnal drizzle. The old man passed the opulent garden, heading towards the door of the mansion. He hit the copper doorknocker against the heavy wooden gate. A room maid answered the door: “Good evening Sir how can I help you?”
The man took off his head and bowed gently. Rain was dripping of his tattered coat and his long beard. “I beg my pardon for disturbing the silence of this house but I have a long journey behind me and would like to ask if I may warm my hands on your fire?”
The maid looked at the old man, who stood on the doorstep, freezing and with neglected clothes, in a sympathetic way.
Then she smiled: “I am sure the Master will be delighted. It’s been a long time since we had a visitor.”
He bowed again and said: “Thank you for your kindness My lady.”
The maid blushed. “I am not a Lady. I am the new maid. It’s my second week in the master’s house. The Lady of this house died a year ago. Please follow me.” She escorted him into the salon, where crackled a fire in the large fireplace which spread a pleasant warmth. The old man took off his heavy bundle and stretched out his cold hands against the flames to warm them up.
“Give me your clothes please. They must be cold and clammy. I will hang them near the fire so that they are dry and warm when you go.”
“You are very friendly.” Said the man and handed her his coat, his scarf and his woolly hat.
“Do you wish a cup of tea or a bowl of soup?” asked the maid opening the door, which headed into the hall.
“You and your master have already been more than generous but I would not exploit the hospitality of this house for too long. You warmed up my soul and the fire will warm up my body. That’s more than enough. As soon as my clothes are dry I will not harass you for any longer.” Said the man with a sad smile.
“Please, do not be silly you do not bother us. I will make you a cup of tea and tell the master that he has a visitor. He will appreciate some distraction.” With these words the maid disappeared and the old man sat down in a heavy chair near the fire and stared thoughtfully into the dancing flames. A short time later the maid opened the door again and man with a noble face and serious manners entered the room. He had a huge mustache and wore an expensive-looking silk shirt with a vest. “Good evening. My name is Lord Harris Johnson. Mary told me we have a visitor. Welcome! Welcome! What a pleasure!” The Lord took the hand of the old man and shook it vigorously. But his smile looked like a mask and his grey eyes remained cold. The old man bowed and said: “I want to thank my lord for hospitality, warmth and soup.”
The Lord laughed: “I always had a heart for beggars. Tell me old man, who are you?”
This smiled: “I am just a wandering painter. A disciple of imagination who looks for dreams, truths, stories and emotions to hold on a canvas.”
“You really are a painter?” The lord studied the old lined face of his counterpart. Then he stroke his mustache. “Do you see the empty space above the fireplace? I always have thought that a portrait of mine would fit very well there. What do you think?”
“If my lord say so.” The old man said. “Oh God, please, tell me the truth!” cried the lord.
The painter was silent for a moment. “If my lord wishes to know the truth I have to paint a picture of you.”
“Why this?” asked the lord curiously.
“I have a special...talent.” said the old man evasively. “I can only paint the truth, nothing else.” He folded his hands in his lap.
Silence filled the room like a gas. Only the crackling of the fire was heard.
Then the landlord said: “Paint me. I want to see your talent.” He placed himself near the fire while the old man took out an easel and a canvas. “You will stay until the portrait is finished that’s the price for my hospitality.”
The other man prepared his brushes and colours. “As you wish but I have to ask for a favour.”
“Speak!” said the lord vigorously. The painter sighed, chose his words carefully: “After I am finished you mustn’t turn your eyes on the canvas until I left your house.”
“Your request is strange. But you have my word. Let’s begin.” With these words the lord leaned back into the chair and the old man began to paint. During long hours only the scrape of the brush and the soft crackling of the fire were heard. The men remained silent for there was nothing to say. Even if they didn’t change a word, a tender intimacy united the two men for both were lost in thoughts and no one wanted to disturb the fragile silence. Dawn reddened the sky as the painter laid down his brush and said: “My work is finished. If my Lord allows, I will leave your house now.” He shouldered his bundle and looked at the lord, who fell asleep during the night. He snarled softly. Then he opened the door and went back through the garden he came in and followed the road around the hill. After a short time the curtain of cold rain covered his silhouette. The lord awakened later in the morning and rubbed his eyes. He was alone. Only the canvas stood there as a last souvenir of the last night. Slowly as if he feared danger, he approached to the easel and glanced on the canvas. He went pale and his eyes stared on the portrait. It shows himself standing over a woman, a blood stained dagger in his hands an expression of pure rage in his face. It seemed like the woman was trying to crawl away, bleeding. As he saw the look in her eyes madness took over his mind. A cry of fear and despair escaped his throat as he took a poker and crushed the canvas with savage strokes. Then he opened the door and ran through his garden towards the street where he looked for the old men. “Where are you, you old beggar!” he cried. “Where are you? Come back and paint a new portrait! Come back!” Tears run down the cheeks of the lord and he looked like a hundred years older. “Please, paint a new one...” he whispered through the rain. But the old man didn’t answer. He was gone.