I instantly found myself thinking of 'A Portrait Is Worth a Thousand Words', my attempt at a 19th century style ghost story. Only the characters who populate this tale are queer and or/gender bending. Elizabeth Hartford has been in my head as a character in the World of Darkness for years. Sometimes she's been a mage. At other times she's been a vampire.
While Blogging From A-Z, she returned to me, forceful and arrogant as an original character. Being a lady of a certain stature, she demanded an entourage. She wanted a Victoria Winters of her own, a girl who worshipped the past, who would worship her portrait.
Elizabeth is not a woman to be denied, even if she's fictional. My brain started playing with the notion, "Ah, but what if her Victoria wasn't a girl at all? What if he was truly male, but looked extremely pretty dressed up as a gothic heroine? What if he had a friend, who dressed him up as a girl and sent him to his living relatives as their kin?"
If you're going to play gothic heroine, however, you're going to run into all the perils gothic heroines face, along with the temptations. Westerleigh Hartford is discovering this.
In the meantime, I'm discovering there's much more to this story than a simple retelling of old ghost and vampire tropes. One of the things which made Victoria Winters a compelling character in 'Dark Shadows' was her lack of a past. This gave her a hunger to have one.
Westerleigh Hartford has a hunger of his own, which he's being able to feed under Elizabeth Hartford's roof, touching Elizabeth Hartford's possessions. What direction will his desire take him? This fragment flirts with the possibilities.
My eye was drawn to the intricate design of the lace peeking out of the sleeves and crawling upward from the bodice. Stars, flowers, and tiny beasts were caught in a web, struggling to be seen against the dark green of the gown.
This had to be one of her dresses. I reached out for the velvet, my finger trembling at its proximity.
“What are you doing?”
I let out a guilty yelp and jolted away from the wardrobe.
Fiona, my cousin, stood before me, hands on hips hidden beneath her white labcoat. She peered at me from behind a thick pair of spectacles.
Heat rushed to my face. I clutched my finger, rubbing it as if it had been burned.
“I’m sorry!” I stammered. “It’s just…I thought-“
“Thought what, girl?” Fiona demanded. “Why are you standing here, like an idiot?” She withdrew a hand from her pocket to wave it in the direction of the wardrobe. “Try it on!”
“What?” I scuttled to the side, away from both my kinsman and the wardrobe. “How can you say such a thing!” Outrage welled up within me, eclipsing the shyness I’d felt since I entered Hartford Hall. “This gown belonged to…must have belonged to…” I faltered, unable to say her name.
“Elizabeth Hartford, yes,” Fiona interrupted. She dropped her arm to tug at the lapel of her coat, drawing attention to a yellow stain on the pocket. “I’ve tried it on myself, but she’s never been satisfied with how I looked. Or me, for that matter.”
“She?” Once more, I let my gaze be drawn to the dark, emerald green of the bodice, the thick folds of the skirt. I couldn’t say her name. It remained, tingling on the tip of my tongue, like a spell I dared not utter.
“Elizabeth Hartford, of course! Who else would we be talking about?” Fiona raised her hand in an attempt to smooth her unruly red hair, making it even more of a tangled mess. “Death hasn’t made her any less the mistress of Hartford Hall and everything in it!” She dropped her arm, abandoning the coppery tangles on her head. “Others might try to wear that damned dress, but she decides who’ll succeed in slipping it on.”
Here was my kinsman, uttering the madness I’d sensed ever since I crossed the threshold of Hartford Hall. Elizabeth was still here. Her spirit lingered in the rooms, among her former possessions. Such was the force of the lady’s character. Elizabeth Hartford had never done what she was supposed to in life. Why would she in death?
“If the dress is still hers, why would she wish for me to try it on?” I shivered, raising my arms to touch the rough silk of my own blouse. No, not mine. Yuri’s. I needed to careful not to move too freely, not to rip the material. Was this part of being a lady? “It would never suit me as it suited her.”
“You wouldn’t have been drawn to this room, if she didn’t want you to try.” Fiona let out a sigh. “You’re her blood, You’re her heiress. If it’s not me, it must be you.” She rubbed her nose, pushing her glasses back on her bridge. “Otherwise, the gown will never be worn. She needs you to wear it for her.”
Elizabeth Hartford needed me? All my life, I’d turned to her for guidance, for inspiration, when I didn’t dare utter my doubts to any of the living. I took a deep breath, feeling the floor, the room, and everything around me swim.
“I’m not worthy,” I whispered, putting a hand against my forehead. Cold sweat slicked against my fingers. “Much as I wish I was.”
“Well, don’t whine about it!” Fiona snapped. “I had my chance with her and I failed!” Her fingers spasmed around her face, stabbing one of the lenses of her glasses. “Don’t blow it, girl!”
Don’t blow it. I found myself standing up a little straighter at that command, delivered from Elizabeth’s descendant. It almost seemed to come from Elizabeth herself.
“All right, I’ll try on the dress,” I said, taking a deep breath. If I stripped down in front of Fiona, our secret would be revealed. Mine and Yuri’s. The girl Yuri had transformed me into through lace and make up would vanish at the naked evidence of something else under my skirt. “However, I need to do it in private.”
“Don’t you understand?” Fiona let out a short, barking laugh. “There’s no privacy here!” She waved her arm at the room, the wardrobe, and the dress itself. “She’ll be watching you! She’s always watching!”
“It’s all right, if it’s her.” I swallowed at the raw truth of my words. I’d always belonged to Elizabeth, every since I was a child. I’d sought her secrets growing up, trying to probe the mystery of whom this sorceress and infamous female truly was. This infamous female I’d come to worship. I was still trying to uncover them, to find out who Elizabeth Hartford truly was.
Shouldn’t I offer Elizabeth one of my secrets in return?
“I’ll strip down, but only for her.” I raised my head. I looked deep into Fiona’s eyes, which were wide and wounded behind her glasses. “I’m sorry, Fi, but it needs to be just the two of us.”
“Figures.” Fiona stiffened and raised her own chin in response. “She’s always had an eye for a pretty girl, even in her own family. Now that she has a tender, sweet young thing, she has no need for her old sidekick.”
I opened my mouth, but didn’t have a chance to answer.
Fiona turned her back on me and stalked towards the doorway.
“You’ll have all the privacy you need and more than you could ever want!” she snapped, before kicking the door closed behind her. Heavy, wooden, and ornately carved, it creaked a dignified protest, while it shuddered.
I released a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. Poor Fiona. I might know exactly how she felt in a moment.
I tried not to tremble, while I reached for the pearl buttons of my blouse. It truly was a lovely thing. I marveled that Yuri had leant it to me. It was too fine and feminine a garment for one such as myself. Now, I was going to wear a lady’s gown. The lady’s gown.
My fingers shook as I undid each small, white nub, revealing the flatness of my chest.
“I wanted so badly to come to Hartford Hall.” I let my skirt fall, revealing my bulging secret. “I tried to transform myself into the girl you wanted, the heiress you hoped would appreciate all that you’ve created.”
Exposed in my panties, I stood for a moment. I stared at the green gown, reluctant to reach out for it. It took every bit of courage I possessed to stretch out my hand. I half expected to feel a chill, or an electric shock.
Nothing happened. I brushed my fingers against the velvet, feeling its welcoming softness. It stroked my fingers in return, urging me to come a little closer.
This was enough to dispell my fears.
“Thank you.” I moved forward to slip the dress of its hooks, to hug it to my chest. “I’ll never be as beautiful as you were in this. I’ll do my best to be worthy of it.”