IT WAS A cool day in late September with the threat of an autumn storm hovering over the Yorkshire moors. The tour bus was approaching from the east, just ahead of the storm, and heading to one of the prime destinations in Yorkshire, a great and rambling manor called Blackmoor Hall. It was settled on the moor like a great stone sentinel, looking oddly misplaced among the flat moors. Something about it stuck out like a sore thumb. In the tour bus, the guide was sitting up at the front with his microphone, rattling off a history of the old place that was difficult to hear because of the pipe in his mouth. He wasn’t smoking it, but he kept it between his teeth purely out of habit. He was also difficult to understand because he tended to mumble, which had his tour group mostly reading the guide and not listening. That included two attractive, middle-aged American women sitting somewhere mid-bus. “Did you catch what he just said?” A redhead with streaks of gray in her hair asked her blonde companion. “I can’t understand what he’s saying half the time.” Her nose buried in the guidebook, the blonde grinned. “Two days of him and I’m getting better at deciphering,” she said. “He’s talking about that painting I want to see now.” “Which one?” “The one called Hope.” The redhead nodded as she remembered that particular detail.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “That’s the one we kept seeing in Easingwold, in the gift shops. On dish towels and playing cards.” “Right.” The redhead yawned, trying to pay more attention to the guide when she caught sight of the structure of Blackmoor looming in the distance. “Lee, look,” she said, pointing. “See it?” Lee Williams looked up from her guidebook, her gaze drinking in the vision of the dark-stoned house on the rise. “Wow,” she finally said. “So that’s it? Deb, get some shots. My phone is buried in my purse.
” Debra Michaelson dutifully dug around in her backpack, producing her phone and proceeding to take some images of the distant house. As she did, Lee leaned against the window and stared at it, watching the place as the bus closed in on it. “I have wanted to see this place for as long as I can remember,” she said, somewhat dreamily. “My mom had a book on this place. It’s really got a history, you know. It has belonged to the same family for four hundred years, but it’s that painting that everyone wants to see.” Debra was looking at the images she’d just taken with her phone. “You’ve mentioned that before,” she said, “but what is it about that picture that everyone goes crazy about?” Lee looked at her, grinning. “Do you not listen to anything I say? That was all I talked about on the plane.” “I was drunk.
And sleeping. Tell me again.” Lee laughed softly. “Because some say that’s where Oscar Wilde got his idea for The Picture of Dorian Gray,” she said. “The picture is that of a beautiful young woman with red hair, dressed in a black dress and carrying a candelabra. It all looks normal enough, but in certain light, some say they can see big scars on her face, like she turns into something creepy and Gothic.” That had Debra interested. “Really?” she said. “Then why is the picture called Hope?” “Maybe it’s her name. No one seems to know.
” The conversation dragged as the bus made a big loop on the drive and pulled into a car park that was already half-full, even at this time in the morning. As the mumbling tour guide explained, Blackmoor Hall was built in the late sixteenth century by the wealthy de Russe family, war lords from the middle ages but a family that eventually made their money in mining and coal. In its prime, Blackmoor Hall had been quite a showplace, with magnificent gardens and priceless furnishing. Kings and queens had stayed at the place and it had a reputation of being one of the finer country homes until the Regency period when it fell into disrepair. As Lee and Debra followed the tour guide towards the house, someone had asked him to speak up, so they began to hear more of what he was saying. “… and movie companies have used the locale for many Hollywood movies,” he was saying. “You’ll notice that it was recently used for a BBC hit called ‘Halls of Valor’, a World War One drama. But the most redeeming factor of Blackmoor Hall is, of course, the painting that inspired The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was first published in 1890. Now, let us retreat inside to see it before the rain swamps us.” As if on cue, fat droplets began to pelt the ground and the tour group hustled inside.
Lee and Debra brought up the rear, drinking in the ambiance of the place as the tour guide droned on about the history of the family that built the house. Lee wasn’t nearly as interested in that as in the house itself and she nearly tuned out everything else but any mention of the famous painting… Hope. There were a couple of other tours in the house at this time of day, in the morning when it first opened, as well as other visitors not with any organized tour. Children ran in one of the corridors upstairs and Lee could hear someone admonishing them. As the tour guide headed off into the dining and kitchen area, which Lee had no interest in, she broke off and began her own tour, going in search of the famous painting she so wanted to see. It wasn’t hard to find. Much like the Mona Lisa, Hope was in a room with several other paintings and works of art from various time periods. There were marble statues, undoubtedly looted from their country of origin, as well as the paintings on the walls. A gallery of sorts had been built on the east side of the house, with tall ceilings, long windows, and a skylight. The windows had heavy drapes to protect the paintings and the skylight could also be covered.
Lee noticed Hope almost immediately, framed in a hermetically-sealed case unlike any of the other paintings in the chamber. People were already gathered around it and, as the rain began to beat against the windows and the sky darkened with the coming storm, Lee found herself entranced with the painting before her eyes. It was quite a piece of work. It was tall, about four feet in height, and the woman in it nearly had her back turned. She was walking away, towards something that looked like Roman ruins in the distance. She was wearing a black dress, flowing and beautiful, and her copper hair was bound up behind her head. She was carrying a candelabra to find her way in the dark landscape of the painting, but there was something beautifully haunting about her face. It was almost surreal. Pale skin, like cream, hadn’t seem to age over the two hundred years since the painting had been commissioned. As a couple moved away from observing the painting, Lee moved forward and found herself staring up at it, as if she couldn’t take her eyes off of it.
“Do you know the story behind it?” The voice came from behind and Lee turned to see an older man standing there. He was tall, dark, and handsome, and when their eyes met, he smiled politely. She smiled in return. “I know that it was painted in 1815 and that it’s the wife of the owner of Blackmoor Hall at that time,” she said. “My mom had a book about Blackmoor Hall and I was always fascinated by this painting.” He took a few steps towards her, looking at her curiously. “You’re American.” “I am.” His gaze lingered on her for a moment before turning his gaze to the painting. “That painting is the draw here,” he said.
“Maybe because it’s so mysterious.” Lee nodded as she looked back to the painting. “It’s very enigmatic,” she agreed. “She looks as if she has a secret or something. Maybe she’s running from something.” “Or to something.” “True,” she said. “You get the feeling that she’s either spooked or someone to be trusted. She looks at you as if you can follow her and she’ll make sure you’re safe. Or she’s running away because something is after her.
It’s hard to tell, but I’ve always gotten an odd feeling from this painting.” “I do, too, and I’ve been seeing it my entire life.” Lee looked at him again. “You’re local?” “You could say that.” He paused. “So, are you on holiday or business?” “Both. I’ve got some business in London but I couldn’t resist coming up here to look around and see Blackmoor.” “Because of your mother’s book?” Lee nodded. “Definitely,” she said. Then, she started to look around.
“It’s weird, but I kind of have a strange sense of déjà vu here. Like I’ve been here before. But I’m sure it’s because of that book. As a kid, I used to pretend I lived here.” He gave her a lopsided smile. “It’s not all that great. It’s a big, drafty barn that smells like a sewer sometimes.” She laughed softly. “Well, it’s still pretty cool,” she said, her attention returning to the painting. “And it has this.
Since you seem to know a lot about the house, do you know much about the painting?” He tore his focus from her, his gaze drifting up to the painting once more. “A bit,” he said. “Probably more than most. What did you want to know?” Lee shrugged. “Everything,” she said. “Is it true that it’s named after the woman in the picture? Her name is Hope?” He cocked his head thoughtfully. “That has been a family debate for many years,” he said. “Some say that’s her name, but other say it’s the feeling of the painting, like the feeling you have when you look at it. She’s either running to, or running away, from something.” A big clap of thunder sounded overhead and the lights flashed, throwing them into dimness for a few seconds.
Lee happened to be looking at the painting at the time and she would swear, until the day she died, that in that moment of darkness, she could see something that looked like great scarring up the side of the woman’s neck. But as soon as the lights came back on again, it disappeared. Her mouth popped open in astonishment. “Holy shit,” she breathed, hand over her mouth. “Did you see that?” Ash was looking up at the lights, apparently oblivious to her muttering. “That’s another thing about this house,” he said. “The generator is a touchy beast. I’d better go check on it.” She was still glued to the painting but she managed to spare him a glance. Since he hadn’t commented on what she thought she’d seen, she didn’t press it.
She didn’t want to look like an idiot. Maybe it was the power of suggestion… but maybe not. “Do you work here?” she asked. “I live here.” Now, he had her full attention. “A live-in caretaker? That’s awesome.” He shook his head. “You misunderstand,” he said. “I live here. My family has lived her for four hundred years.
I’m Ash Russe.” Now, Lee felt like an idiot. “Oh,” she said, laughing softly. “I didn’t realize… it’s very nice to meet you, Ash. I’m Lee Williams and I love your house. I can’t explain it, but it’s very familiar to me.” He was grinning at her. “Thank you very much,” he said, shaking her hand for a second time and holding it just a little longer than necessary. “If you’ve got some time, I’ll tell you more about this painting after I check on the generator.” Lee looked around, wondering where her tour had gone.
“I’m with a tour, but I’d love to hear it,” she said. “I can’t pass up the opportunity to hear it from the family who owns it.” “Good,” Ash said. “I don’t do this for just anyone, but I will admit, you give me a sense of déjà vu, too. Have you ever been to England before? Up here in Yorkshire, I mean. Maybe we’ve met before?” She shook her head. “I haven’t been up in the north like this,” she said. “I’ve been to London a few times, but I don’t think we’ve met. I would have remembered.” There was something warm in the way she said it and his eyes reflected that warmth.
“I swear you look familiar,” he said. “Lee. Lee. Is that short for something?” She appeared somewhat embarrassed. “My mother is from Mississippi,” she said. “I was named for my grandmother and her mother – Eulalie. But I have gone by Lee since I was very young. Eulalie for a three-year-old is a mouthful.” “Eulalie,” he repeated, rolling it over his tongue. “Till the yellow-haired young Eulalie became my smiling bride.
” “Come again?” “It’s from a poem by Poe. You haven’t heard of it?” Recognition dawned and she nodded her head. “Yes, absolutely,” she said. “That’s where the family name came from.” He was still smiling at her but he turned back to the painting, back to the woman who was either running from something or running to something. Hope. “That painting was done by a blind man,” he said quietly. “Not in the literal sense, but it was commissioned by an ancestor of mine who had lost his sight in an accident. That painting is his wife, whom he called Hope. Whether or not that was her real name is up for debate, but that’s what he called her.
It’s even on her tombstone. He couldn’t see her, so he had an artist come to Blackmoor and paint the picture from his mind’s eye. This is how he saw his Hope. Not bad for a blind man, wouldn’t you say?” Lee looked at the painting in awe. “Not bad at all,” she said. “I hadn’t heard that. What an amazing story.” “Would you like to hear the whole tale?” “Definitely. But what about the generator?” “That can wait.” Lee couldn’t have agreed more