While others rush to immerse themselves wholeheartedly in the fads and fashions of their age, over the years the inhabitants of Hopeless have steadfastly ignored such shallowness. This is not totally out of choice. In fact, it’s not at all out of choice. No one enjoys a spot of puddle-deep diversion more than the average Hopelessian but when you live on an island surrounded by fog and crawling with an assortment of nasties these things just don’t turn up by mail-order. Anything of a remotely novel nature generally arrives by accident.
One such serendipitous item is now a treasured possession of Rufus Lypiatt, current landlord of The Squid and Teapot. This is a carpet-bag which was left at the inn by the renowned librettist, Mr. W. S. Gilbert. You may recall that Mr Gilbert returned to the mainland in something of a hurry following a night apparently disturbed by several spoonwalkers invading his bedroom. The bag he left behind contained several items of interest, not least of which was a collection of hand-tinted daguerreotypes of nineteenth century works of art, including some reproductions of paintings by the group who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
When, in the latter years of the nineteenth century, this book was shown to Beatrice Merrywalk, one of the older girls in the orphanage, she immediately fell in love with Romantic art and Sir John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia in particular. Although she had absolutely no idea who Ophelia was, she sensed from the painting that here was young woman who epitomised all of the yearnings for tragic romance that stirred in her own breast. It felt to her that Death was the greatest artist of all, perfect in its dark finality. Having become quietly obsessed with Millais’ painting, she decided that she not only wanted to become Ophelia, the girl in the stream, but to be seen in that role forever, so that people would understand the turmoil and anguish churning in her young heart. To add to her sense of the dramatic, not to say melodramatic, she had come across ‘The Death of Chatterton’, another picture heavy with the illusion of romantic death, this time of a young poet. Maybe if she, as Ophelia, could find her Chatterton, they could let the world know of, and appreciate, their great pain.
That cruel trickster, Adolescence, is famous for filling certain young heads with dark clouds and yearnings for a picturesque death. It was, therefore, almost inevitable that Beatrice would find her Chatterton before too long had elapsed. He arrived in the form of Algernon Box, an unassuming young man who lived alone in an old and falling-down cottage next to a babbling creek that led down to the sea. Like so many on Hopeless, Algernon’s parents had disappeared under mysterious circumstances and as a consequence the lad was given to staring at the most incongruous items with dewy-eyed sensitivity and looking glum.
No one objected when Beatrice moved in with Algernon. The orphanage was happy to have one mouth fewer to feed. Besides, on Hopeless none of the usual rules apply. Life is difficult enough without unnecessary complications. To call these two young people lovers, however, would be a vast overstatement. They were bound together by a common bond of platonic melancholy. This usually involved staring at incongruous items with dewy-eyed sensitivity and looking glum. Their conversation, when it dragged itself out of the Slough of Despair, would invariably turn to the subject of finding a suitable artist to capture their last, tragic moments as perfect replicas of Ophelia and Chatterton. They named the little plot of land upon which they lived Tragedy Creek and planned their suicide pact.
“Only Death will give us what we most desire,” said Beatrice, and she truly believed this to be so.
You may have noticed that Hopeless is quite a strange place. The unusual and bizarre is fairly run-of-the-mill around here. In view of that, neither of the two young people felt remotely surprised when, one dismal afternoon, the very man they had hoped for arrived at the door of their cottage. In a deep, sonorous voice, he introduced himself as being an artist visiting the island and asked to be invited in. His gangly frame, lean to the point of appearing cadaverous, seemed to fill the tiny kitchen.
In truth, this mysterious visitor did not resemble anyone’s idea of an artist. In his smart, dark business suit he looked more like a lawyer. Or an undertaker. The only clues to his trade were contained in the portfolio he carried under his arm.
“I have the paintings you requested.”
The pair looked at each other in puzzlement.
“Paintings? We’ve ordered no paintings.”
“Oh but you did. I heard you. Is this not what you most desire?”
The dark stranger placed the portfolio on the kitchen table and, opening it, produced two paintings. One was of Beatrice. This was exactly as she had visualised herself; Ophelia, alone and tragic, lying in the creek that ran by the side of the cottage. The other painting was of Algernon as Chatterton. He had painted him as though in his home surroundings.
They both gasped.
“They are beautiful,” said Beatrice. ”But how…”
“You asked. Don’t you remember?” said the stranger, then, without another word he picked up his portfolio and left. At least they assumed he had left, for the whole episode passed as if it were a dream. Only the two works of art lying on the table proved that any of it had really happened.
Several days passed before either noticed some subtle transformations occurring in the paintings. Small creatures had suddenly appeared around the bodies, which had somehow started to appear less attractive. Ophelia began to bloat. The pallor of both became quite ghastly. After another week or so things began to look really awful. They had become carrion. Although the corpse of Chatterton was subject to the attentions of anything that could crawl, squirm or slither through his window, Ophelia, out in the open, fared worse.
By the end of the second week Beatrice and Algernon had to turn the pictures around so that they faced the wall. The images of each had become the stuff of the most horrible nightmare imaginable. Faced with such brutal reality all their ideas of romantic death were gone. Alone and terrified they clung fiercely to each other and wept.
It was the night-soil man who found them. They were huddled together in the little cottage, a look of terror and madness imprinted upon their young faces. They had been dead for some days. He looked around him at the sparse furnishings and few possessions. It struck him as strange that amid all the poverty were two quite beautiful paintings, each depicting doomed youth.
Even now, Tragedy Creek is felt to be the most melancholic place on Hopeless. In over a century only a handful of people have stayed in Algernon’s cottage for more than a night or two. The most recent resident was a would-be poet who was later discovered to be a escaped convict. Although he reported no strange experience there, some claim to have seen two unhappy ghosts walking from the front door to the babbling creek. It was long ago thought best that the paintings be removed to more cheerful surroundings. Today they hang safely behind the bar in the Squid and Teapot. Occasionally Rufus will be asked who the artist is. He always gives the same answer, usually with a wry smile. “I’m damned if I can tell you…
Art by Tom Brown