Like most of my stories, this one started with a dream. It was extremely vivid, and when I woke up, I felt compelled to write it down. I simply could not stop writing until the story was finished. It took me several hours. Luckily, it was a weekend, and the tale was brief. I thought the event was a one-time fluke. For more than two years, I wrote nothing. And then the actorly Muse returned, in quite a different guise…
Sir Francis’ Last Girl: Conclusion
One day in November, Sir Francis assigned Jess to play a love scene with a rather large and brutish-looking boy, Damon, from the neighboring college. They were supposed to sit together on the divan that was one of the props in the studio, and they had about five minutes of dialogue to perform. The text was comic banter about the stealing of a kiss, but instead of finishing his lines, Damon grabbed her roughly and put his mouth over hers. Shocked, she wondered if she had somehow missed this part of the script. She tried to play along, but Damon shoved his tongue in her mouth and began to press her back onto the divan, running his free hand up her shirt. She pushed him away as hard as she could, and tried to say something, but he was still covering her mouth with his and pressing hard against her. When he fumbled at his belt buckle, she began to panic, then forced herself to think. She grasped a hank of his hair and pulled as hard as she could, while with her knee she jerked up sharply, hitting him, she hoped, in the groin.
This seemed to work because he emitted a grunt and rolled off her onto the floor in front of her goggling classmates, none of whom had made a peep since the start of this strange exhibition. Sir Francis was sitting nearby, as always, and began to applaud as he normally did when he approved of a performance. Tentatively, a few of the girls applauded too.
“Thank you, Damon, that was quite convincing. You may leave now; we won’t be needing your services again.”
Class continued as though nothing unusual had happened, although Jess saw some of the girls shooting her odd looks. Her heart was still beating fast, and she wanted to storm out of the class, but she dared not. Was he responsible? How could he do something so cruel? And why? Had it been some kind of test?
There was no invitation to tea that day, but a few days later Jess received a request to deliver some books to Sir Francis’ house. When she arrived, he greeted her as usual and asked her to sit down.
“My dear, have you ever been in love? I know so little about you and I should like to know everything. Tell me, do you have a boyfriend?”
Haltingly, Jess began to speak. She was still angry about the episode with Damon, but it appeared that no explanation was forthcoming. Under the spell of his voice, she felt hypnotized, bewitched… and she wanted very much for things to be the way they had before. It was almost like talking with oneself, in the privacy of one’s own mind. She told him that there was no boyfriend, although she had had several in high school. She had even slept with two of them. Ah, he said. And was this something you enjoyed? No, she replied. It had been uncomfortable, even painful for her. It was something the boys expected, so she did what they wanted. Her main fear was that she might get pregnant, so she insisted that they use protection.
“Yes. You are not the Little Mouse that others think you, Jessamyn Little. Why do you not use your full name, Jessamyn? It is a dactyl, like Rosalind.”
No jewel is like Jessamyn
Her worth, being mounted on the wind,
Through all the world bears Jessamyn.
“You could be a Homeric heroine with such a name, as it would fit the meter. But not Helen, I think. You are not lovely enough for that. Perhaps you are Briseïs, the helpless captive of Achilles? But Briseïs had her own resources, you know. She was not as helpless as she seemed.”
Jess felt foolishly disappointed that Sir Francis thought she was not pretty enough to be Helen. But she was flattered that he liked her name. She’d never used it, feeling that it was too odd and extravagantly feminine.
Over the holiday break, she spent much of her time thinking about Sir Francis, although she scarcely questioned the nature of their relationship, such as it was. She still knew very little about him. She firmly resolved not to take his Spring class, but in January she nevertheless found herself enrolling in Introduction to Acting II.
The next time they met outside of class was over tea at the Club, and Sir Francis asked her to deliver some books on photography he wanted. He had set up one of the rooms in the house as a studio. He wished her to pose for some pictures. Oh God, she thought. Is he going to ask me to take off my clothes? Knowing that she would likely do whatever he asked, she went rather reluctantly to his house that day, but felt a kind of suppressed excitement.
Sir Francis, however, showed no signs of asking her to disrobe. He seemed pleased with his new photography equipment and books. “I used to make a hobby of this… was quite accomplished at one time,” he said. “These new cameras, however… We shall make do as best we can.” For the next hour he took pictures of her from various angles, adjusting and readjusting the lights. She began to grow hot and her face flushed.
“Time to stop now, my dear; I see you are tired. Come tomorrow and wear a dress, not those hideous denims you always favor.”
The next day, she arrived in her high school graduation dress, which was the finest garment she owned. It was pink, with a fitted waist and a full skirt. Sir Francis approved.
“Now, come into the W.C., my dear. We must prepare you for your closeups,” he said cheerfully. In the bathroom was a large leather case, which he opened to reveal a full kit of theatrical makeup. He had Jess sit at the vanity while he applied makeup and false eyelashes to her face, and then he styled her hair, for all the world as though he had been to beauty school. Looking in the mirror, she thought that she appeared grotesque, but if this game pleased him, there was no reason to object. He spent two hours taking pictures this time, chuckling to himself.
“Quite a cliché; now I fancy myself a Pygmalion. But Galatea, do you truly need what I shall give you? Perhaps you can create yourself without my help.”
Then he allowed her to remove the makeup using first cold cream, and then cool water, with only a small amount of mild soap. “Never wash your face with hot water,” he warned.
“Why are you interested in me?” she asked suddenly.
“I am an actor, my dear. I live through other people’s experiences. Your role is one of the few that is still new to me.”
“Why did you come here?”
“I grew tired of my life in England. If you live as long as I have, I hope that one day you will look back and think of me a little… not as I was in the films you have seen, but as I am today. And now, it is time for you to go. Don’t forget to bring me the volume of Hine photographs next time.”
Two weeks later, as the first spring crocus and snowdrops were beginning to appear about the campus, he showed her a series of prints of the photographs. She scarcely recognized herself. She looked like a movie star from the thirties, by turns misty-eyed, sultry, then cool and confident.
“Physical attractiveness is superficial, of course,” he told her. “You may purchase it easily, especially when you are young. Now, I was never a handsome fellow. I had to work harder to be perceived as a leading man… or a lover.”
They were sitting together on the sofa in the “drawing room,” as he called it. He took her hand in his, and not breaking eye contact, he kissed it. Then he slowly ran his fingers up her arm, raised her elbow, and brought it to his lips. Jess stared at him, speechless. His cheeks sagged, and his skin had the transparent look of advanced age. Only the laser look of his eye, which flashed for a moment as she regarded him, seemed the same as that of his more youthful self, even through the lenses of his glasses. One hand went round her waist, and he leaned into her neck, kissing it gently. This caused a jet of excitement to travel down the front of her body. Then he looked into her eyes again, and passed his hand over the lids, like someone closing the eyes of the dead. He pressed his mouth to hers, slightly open. His lips felt soft. She responded to the kiss, a little. What would happen next? Finally he released her and sighed.
She said, “Do people around here ever ask you questions about us? Why we spend so much time together?”
He laughed. “No, my dear. They dare not, because I am the chief magnet for gifts to the College. I also have tenure at this institution. Oh, I suppose if I did something truly horrid, they might ask me to leave. But you might be surprised at what they are willing to overlook in some of the other faculty at this little fishbowl of a College.”
He paused, and then said, “Tell me, Jessamyn. Do you feel that I have ever harmed you?”
She flushed, and replied, “No, except maybe one time.”
She saw comprehension and something like regret in his eyes, but he only said, “Yes. We shan’t speak of that.”
A few weeks later, she received a summons to the Administrative offices in the library. The Dean of Students was there, one of the women whom she had heard speaking of her from the carrel. One of the Dean’s assistants was also there with a notepad, as well as Jess’s Biology professor. They faced her rather grimly.
“Jessamyn, we know you have a… relationship with Sir Francis. For the good of the College, we would like you to break it off. People are beginning to talk. And we are concerned for you too, of course,” she added hastily. Then seeing that Jess did not respond, she said, “It is bound to end anyway, you know. Sir Francis chooses a ‘special friend’ every year and he always drops them rather unceremoniously after the year is up. If you have somehow become… attached to him, you might as well end it now rather than having him do it for you.”
Jess felt quite calm. When she received the request to come to the library, she had wondered if it were not something to do with Sir Francis. She sat silently for a moment, and then looked up.
“My private life is just that, private. Sir Francis and I have done nothing wrong, nothing that would embarrass the school.” She felt herself beginning to tremble, and her lungs became constricted, but she continued, “My answer is no. And now, if you will excuse me, I have some books to deliver.” She rose and slipped out the door, trying not to run.
After that, nothing more was said about the “relationship,” and she did not mention the incident to Sir Francis. They went on exactly as before, having tea in the Club and speaking of poetry. There were no more kisses. But as the end of the academic year drew nearer, she began to fear that it would be as the Dean had predicted—that next year he would act as though none of this had ever happened. She admitted to herself that she was in love with him, though the feeling was unlike any attraction to a man that she had experienced before.
In the first week of May, she entered the student dining hall to hear the news that Sir Francis had been found dead in his bed, already cold. He must have passed sometime during the previous evening, they said. A few of those discussing the news refused to meet her eyes, and others stared at her, trying to gauge her reaction. She felt her face begin to redden, but she tried to reveal nothing to the onlookers. Walking slowly back to her room, she noticed that a few reporters were already beginning to converge on the quad. She prepared for her classes, which went surprisingly as usual.
Everything should have come to an abrupt halt, she thought. How can he not still be in the world?
She was not invited to his funeral, an élite event in London attended by celebrities. The television reporters commented on his long career, his three marriages, and his many romantic exploits among both men and women. He had had affairs with both Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, they said. His last five years at the College were rarely mentioned in the obituaries.
Four months later, however, she received a box with a letter from Sir Francis’ London solicitor. She had been named in Sir Francis’ will, and was to receive the contents of the box. It held several of his Latin and Greek books, including Horace’s Ars Poetica, which they had often discussed. In a smaller archival container she found all the negatives of the photographs he had taken as well as the prints. There was also an unsigned note in his handwriting, which said, “For my Briseïs. Now you are free.”
Much later in her life, she would often regret that she had never been able to hear him speak of his London days, the stage work of which she was so ignorant, the Second World War, the famous people he had known. Now, though, she simply mourned the loss of the old man of eighty years. Which was, in fact, precisely as he had wished it.
Copyright 2015 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Much in this story has personal significance for me. It reflects certain real-life experiences of my own, though these did not involve a famous actor nor any of the details in this plot. I see now that Sir Francis later reappeared in my stories as Alexander Porteous, a wealthy, elderly man with a book collection.
In case you’re still wondering about the actor in my dream, here he is: