The Portrait

This story was inspired by a BBC costume drama. What would it be like, I mused, to travel back in time and land in England in the early nineteenth century? How would the time traveler explain himself? It appeared on the website Fiction on the Web which is appropriately based in London.

 

Charles Koranda was found one fine spring morning lying in the low grass beside a country lane in Somersetshire. Things had gone exactly according to plan: Dr Callum Gibson, who was on his way home from a visit to a nearby patient, was going to drive by in his carriage just after Koranda materialized. Koranda wasn’t there two minutes when he heard the low rumbling of the carriage wheels and the unmistakable plodding of hooves on the well-trod earth. He didn’t need to feign illness as he felt quite out of sorts after his ordeal––the effect was something like a hangover. He remained as he was, sprawled in the sweet-scented grass. As the carriage was passing him Dr Gibson commanded the driver to halt. Even before the vehicle came to a complete stop the doctor nimbly jumped down and knelt beside Koranda who was holding his head and moaning softly.

“My good man, whatever is the matter?” he asked, at the same time sizing up the young stranger who was dressed in a strikingly unusual manner.

“Oh, I’m not quite sure. Don’t think I can stand on my own just yet, though.”

The accent was peculiar, like no English dialect Dr Gibson had ever heard. And what clothes! Gibson had never seen anything like them. This mysterious gentleman was not wearing a coat but had on a shirt, quite well made from the looks of it, with curious buttons in the oddest places and some sort of monogram stitched onto the left breast pocket. And the color! The man’s bearing was not that of a laborer or field worker; the quality of his clothing was fine, too fine for a person of low social standing. He seemed to be a well-bred young man. Dr Gibson guessed he was in his early thirties.

At a signal from the doctor the driver jumped down and assisted in getting Koranda to his feet and into the carriage. The driver was a well-fed country type by the looks of him, perhaps no more than eighteen or nineteen years old, blond, with a solid build and rosy cheeks.

“I think you had better come with us and we will get you sorted out properly,” was all Gibson said.

The doctor was a kind and compassionate man. That was part of the reason he had been selected to find Koranda that morning. They rode along without exchanging a word, Gibson eying his passenger curiously from time to time. Koranda, who had by now fully recovered, delighted in the sights passing him by: the splendid English countryside, glimpses of country homes in the distance, the view of a village in the valley a few miles away. That will be Banbury, he thought.

There was also the pleasure of riding in an open carriage pulled by a pair of horses. After about a quarter of an hour they pulled into the drive leading to a fine country home. It wasn’t an estate, but was still quite impressive, a large house in neoclassical style. A set of curved steps led up to the front entrance. There was an expanse of lawn in front, a generous amount of shrubbery, and a well-tended garden to one side.

Koranda thought it best to still play the invalid. He let himself be supported by Dr Gibson and the driver as he alit from the carriage. They slowly ascended the steps to the front door. It was opened by a waiting maid who made no attempt to conceal her astonishment at Koranda’s appearance, gawking openmouthed as he passed. He was brought to the sitting room and was gently deposited into a wing chair.

“Are you all right?” asked Dr Gibson.

“Sure. I’ll be just fine in a few minutes.”

“Let me get you a brandy, and after you have recovered your equilibrium you might care to tell me who you are and what brings you to this county. Mr Thomas Hilfiger, is it?”

“What? Oh no, the name is Koranda, actually. Charles Koranda. But my friends call me CK.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Koranda realized that addressing someone by their initials was an informality not likely to be known here. He was trying his best not to make any gaffes of speech or behavior, but knew it was inevitable that he would say or do something inappropriate. He had been distracted by the ‘Hilfiger’ bit and it took him a few seconds to realize that his permanent press cotton chinos had a logo emblazoned over the rear pocket.

“Your home is just splendid, Dr Gibson,” he said, striving to keep his feelings in check. He would have liked to dance about in sheer exuberance; here he was in a house, a room, that looked like a set out of Masterpiece Theater. Only this was the real thing. Dr Gibson had lifted an eyebrow, surprised that this stranger would know his name.

“Yes, I do know who you are, though you don’t know me. Your good reputation goes far and wide.” Just how far and wide the good doctor could hardly imagine, but Koranda didn’t want to get into it at this moment. “That’s why you were chosen to find me in the lane. It was no accident.”

Dr Gibson’s visage expressed even greater astonishment. “Chosen to find you in the lane? Whatever do you mean?” He leaned forward in his chair.

“I am very grateful to you for your willingness to come to my aid, more than you can know. I realize that I owe you an explanation. My unusual appearance and general manner must raise a few questions in your mind.”

“Indeed they do. But please proceed.” He had settled back and resumed his impassive demeanor. Whatever thoughts were occupying Dr Gibson’s mind, he was not going to reveal them too readily, being the well-bred Englishman and doctor he was.

“There is a simple explanation for all this, and I could tell you the whole story, but I’m afraid you shall think me mad.” He had actually prepared this part of his speech before his departure. It sounded so British, like a line from the dialogue in a Jane Austen novel. ‘You shall think me mad’ was not something he was in the habit of saying at home. His friends would have thought him pretentious. He paused a moment, wondering just how to continue, when approaching steps were heard in the hallway.

“That will be Mrs Gibson,” said the doctor.

The door opened and in walked a very well dressed woman in her mid-forties, about the same age as her husband. The material in her pale-green dress (Koranda guessed it was raw silk) shimmered in the light. She was further adorned with a gorgeous necklace and matching earrings, a Kashmiri shawl with tassels, and topped off by an elaborate hairdo into which a bit of lace had been intertwined. So, he thought, the upper classes really did dress up like that, even during the day. He was so impressed with her appearance that he nearly leapt out of his chair. Mrs Gibson stopped dead in her tracks when she saw him, and her eyes scanned him from head to toe and back again.

Dr Gibson took charge of the awkward moment. “My dear, I should like you to meet Mr Charles Koranda who is paying us an unexpected visit. He apparently knows of me already and was about to divulge the nature of that acquaintance.”

“How do you do.” Mrs. Gibson recovered her composure, smiled graciously and stepped forward, extending her hand. Koranda took the proffered hand and bowed slightly. He couldn’t help noticing how her eyes seemed to be riveted first on his shirt (a button-down in magenta had apparently not been the best choice), then on his shoes. He had made a point of putting on his best leather dress shoes (Cole-Haan wingtips they were), but they must have looked odd anyway. He noticed that Dr Gibson had on high boots. The driver had worn boots as well, though his weren’t as nice.

“Well, Mr Koranda, do tell us what brings you to Bexhill House,” said Mrs Gibson while taking her place next to her husband on the settee. She was still smiling graciously, but with an added air of mischievous curiosity.

“Well….er….this is going to be a little difficult. I beg your indulgence.” He downed the last gulp of brandy and continued. “Dr Gibson, you are known to be a rational, kind and fair-minded individual. Please hear me out. You have observed, I hope, that I am not a lunatic, nor am I inebriated.” Gibson nodded in assent. “As you might have already guessed, I am not from this country. My home is in the United States of America. But that doesn’t explain the crucial point. The truth is that I am not from this world.” Here he paused for dramatic effect. “I come from the future.” He waited again to let the dust settle after dropping this bombshell. Neither Dr nor Mrs Gibson moved a muscle. They stared at him in incredulous silence. “I am not from this century––it’s 1832 isn’t it?––nor from the next, but from the beginning of the twenty-first century, 2016 to be exact. We have made some remarkable, for you unimaginable, technological advances. My appearance here is part of an experiment that has been underway for quite some time at the university where I teach.”

Koranda went on to explain the particulars of the time travel project as best he could. But as he wasn’t a part of the making of it, he wasn’t able to provide too many details. Science wasn’t his field at all; he taught Art History. He was, however, good friends with Dr Ramachandra, the eccentric but brilliant scientist who masterminded the whole thing from the beginning, running his grand experiment out of his house with the help of a few graduate assistants sworn to secrecy. The person originally scheduled for this particular ‘launch’ had dropped out suddenly and the time could not be put off. It all had something to do with planetary alignments and energy fields, that much Koranda knew. Ramachandra had approached him just the day before, begging him to consent to be the traveler. He was available, he was willing (though a bit skeptical of the whole thing), and was the only person in on the secret who had a comprehensive view of European history. The prospect of traveling to early nineteenth century England was irresistible. Of the two previous launches, one had been a disaster (the chosen traveler had been unwilling or unable to return from the France of Louis XIV), and the next an unqualified success, though that candidate had been so enthusiastic after his visit to first century Rome that he had put the whole project in jeopardy with his indiscretions. It was unfortunate that there had been so little time for preparation on Koranda’s part. He did the best he could.

Not only did Ramachandra have the capacity to transport individuals back in time, he was able to observe the doings of selected individuals at any point in time he wished. Koranda understood none of this. To him it seemed something akin to the Google street level feature. Dr Gibson had been observed by Ramachandra for a while and was deemed a suitable contact for the traveler. The doctor had a sterling character, was a generous individual, open-minded (though how he would react to anything as outlandish as a time traveler was anybody’s guess), and was of a respectable social standing. The most fortuitous confluence of particulars had come together quickly and Koranda was on his way to Somerset. One moment he was sitting in a chair in a house in Connecticut, a metal halo resting on his head, and the next moment he found himself sprawled by the side of a country road in early nineteenth-century England.

And here he was now, sitting in an armchair in a magnificent country house, on a lovely spring day in the year 1832, calmly explaining his situation to the Gibsons. They had relaxed a bit but hadn’t taken their eyes off of him the whole time. He thought he’d better stop for a while.

“Well,” said Mrs Gibson after a long silence, “I think the best thing now would be a nice cup of tea. Don’t you agree, Mr Koranda?”

He agreed, quite relieved they hadn’t thrown him out. Mrs Gibson got up to ring for the maid who appeared within seconds. She must have been waiting outside the door.

“Jenny, tea for three here in the sitting-room, please.”

Jenny unabashedly stared at the guest. Rumors of a strangely clad, attractive visitor must have been making the rounds among the domestic help. Koranda was grateful for the lull in the conversation at that moment.

He got up to have a closer look at the furnishings, and in particular the many oil paintings that adorned the walls of the room. Nearly all were landscapes, with a few portraits––and one of these interested him in particular. He admired a Sheraton side table, a stunning specimen, the kind of item that would cause antique dealers to go into ecstasy. What a hit it would be on Antiques Roadshow! “You know, Dr Gibson, if I had a table like this in my century it would be worth a small fortune.”

“Really? How extraordinary.”

“And your collection of paintings is admirable. I hope you can tell me about them.”

He remained standing and continued with the explanation of his origins. “I understand why you would be hesitant to believe me––why should you?––so allow me to present you with more tangible proof of my origin.” With that Koranda took out his wallet and peeled out a twenty dollar bill, handing it over to Gibson. “That’s Andrew Jackson. He’s currently President of the United States, as you well know. He’s at the end of his first term and will win a second in the next election. His vice president, Mr van Buren, will succeed him in 1836.”

Gibson examined the banknote with great interest. When he saw ‘SERIES 1999’ next to Jackson’s portrait he did a double-take. “My word, this is extraordinary. Charlotte dear, have a look at this.”

“They don’t ordinarily put someone’s portrait on a bill while he’s still in office, do they now?” offered Koranda with a hint of smugness. For good measure he also handed over his Connecticut driver’s license, his university ID, and a credit card. “These are made of plastic. It’s a synthetic substance that won’t be invented for quite a while yet. We’re rather fond of it.”

The Gibsons handled each item with increasing wonderment. They were truly dumbfounded. Koranda’s exact likeness in color on his license and again on his ID elicited gasps from both of them. As the coup de grâce Koranda took off his wristwatch and handed it over. It was nothing special by twenty-first century standards, an ordinary Timex digital with date and chronometer, but the Gibsons examined it like they had just been handed the Crown Jewels. At this moment the tea was brought in, the tray placed before Mrs Gibson.

“Do you take milk, Mr Koranda?”

“Why yes, thank you. No sugar, though.” He had to admire the ‘stiff upper lip’, the ability to carry on like it were the most normal thing in the world to have tea with a guest visiting from 184 years in the future!

“There’s a lot I could tell you about the future, some of it good, some not. Let’s see…if everything worked out right, today should be the 14th of May, 1832.” Dr Gibson verified that it was, indeed. “The current monarch is William IV. He will reign until 1837, to be succeeded by his niece Victoria who will occupy the throne for an incredible 64 years, until 1901. That’s a record that would be unsurpassed for a long time.”

Gibson perked up and proffered a very British “positively astonishing!”

“I could go on with the royal succession (know most of ‘em, I think) but that’s less interesting. The current monarch, I mean in 2016, is Queen Elizabeth II whose reign began in 1952. She recently passed Victoria’s tenure. The British monarchy seems to be blessed with some long-lived individuals. Most of the other monarchies in Europe were swept away at the beginning of the twentieth century. But that’s another story…”

He had been able to read up on the events of the 1830s before he left, but there were still many points he was foggy about. “Your beloved author Sir Walter Scott will pass away this year, on September the twenty-first. I’m sorry to report that the cholera epidemic will really rage next month, too. Next year Parliament will abolish slavery in the Empire.”

“And thank God for that!” exclaimed Gibson who was listening with rapt attention.

“The situation in my country will not resolve itself so easily on that issue, I’m afraid. There will be a bloody civil war in thirty years with the antislavery forces ultimately winning and the Union being preserved. It’s one of our darkest chapters.”

The Gibsons had many questions and Koranda went on to deliver a brief history of the world, or as much as he knew. The twentieth century, with its barbarous world wars and other horrific events, was painful to recount and he glossed over much of it. One could so easily become a cynic looking at history from either vantage point, from before or after. The Gibsons were enthralled with his recitation and seemed to welcome him completely.

“Now, Mr Koranda, what can we do to make your visit with us, however long that might be, as pleasant as possible?” asked Gibson cordially.

“We are delighted to make your acquaintance and look forward to many interesting hours in your company” added Charlotte Gibson.

“You are so very kind. I am entirely at your disposal and indebted to you for your generosity.” He continued, “I will need the proper clothing, of course, and your assistance in dealing with the niceties of your society. You see, things have changed a lot in the intervening years. I feel like a fish out of water here.”

The Gibsons very quickly assembled a wardrobe for him, down to every detail. The laundry maids would undoubtedly be fascinated with his Polo Ralph Lauren shirt and trousers with a permanent crease, thought Koranda as he was changing, as well as his modern underwear. If he had only had time to contact the wardrobe department of the university theater before his departure, he could have avoided making such a fashion spectacle of himself. Men of this era wore high-collared white shirts made of linen, wool trousers without a crease, a waistcoat, a dark frock coat and boots. The linen underwear was an interesting touch, he discovered. And then there was the problem of his hair. His was fairly short, with a part. The style of the day was long and often coiffed in what struck him as a ridiculous manner. He would have to see what he could do with a comb and Macassar oil.

His first outing was into the village, in the company of Dr Gibson. It was decided that Koranda’s true identity and origin be kept secret. He avoided conversation as much as possible. When he was introduced as an acquaintance visiting from abroad he nodded politely and let Gibson do most of the talking. At first he lived in constant fear of doing or saying something inappropriate, but after a while he relaxed and enjoyed the pleasures of living in a more gracious age. He learned to be evasive yet polite with strangers who inquired about the details of his own life. As virtually no one he met had ever encountered a real live American before, he could fudge quite a lot. He thought it best to say that he came from a small town in Connecticut––which happened to be true.

The outward aspect of everyday life in Banbury was a source of constant fascination. Of course everything was made by hand, sewn by hand, hewn and erected by craftsmen, cooked and baked from scratch. Observing the gentility of social interactions and the general elegance of dress, he had to remind himself that these were real people going about their lives––it wasn’t a film set. The level of sanitation took some getting used to. There was dirt and mud everywhere. It was hard to avoid. And the glaring poverty of the less fortunate was another shock. Well, those problems hadn’t been solved by the twenty-first century either, he thought.

The Gibsons very generously provided their guest with decent clothes. Besides the everyday suit they had somehow found for him, there was another outfit for traveling, and even formal wear for grander occasions. Charlotte insisted it was nothing, but Koranda knew that even the first suit couldn’t have been easy to find. Everybody was smaller, much smaller. How did she ever find his size? he wondered. And the newest outfits had to be made to order, no ready-to-wear stuff off the rack. He loved the frock coat and the boots; they made him feel like a real gentleman. Then there was the problem of money. Koranda didn’t have any, not a farthing. The Gibsons took care of all his needs and he was totally dependent upon the them. And no one ever asked him how long he planned to stay.

The Gibsons housed Charles in a separate building, a spacious apartment above the carriage house. He could come and go as he pleased, although he was expected to show up for meals. No one bothered him at all. The Gibsons maintained a comfortable life style and kept a number of servants. The young man who was so helpful on his arrival was named Andrew. He was technically a medical assistant to Dr Gibson but he helped out in many other ways. There was no real medical schooling at the time. An aspiring doctor attached himself to an established physician and, after a few years or so, he was ready to hang out his own shingle. This seemed a frightening arrangement to Koranda. But, no matter; he wasn’t interested in Andrew’s medical credentials anyway. He cultivated the young man for other reasons: as a possible abettor in crime. There was no other term for it.

Ramachandra was a genius, no doubt about that, but his research and time travel project had to be done in secret. The university would have never awarded him a grant, might have even dismissed him if it were known exactly what he was about. In order to fund his clandestine activities, such as paying his graduate assistants for their extra time, Ramachandra wanted something in return. He knew that the Gibsons had a portrait hanging in their parlor, a self-portrait done by Joseph Wright of Derby. This particular painting would eventually be sold to a collector in Belgium in the early twentieth century and would disappear during the carnage of the Second World War. It was thought to have been destroyed. If Koranda could bring it back (leaving a convincing reproduction in its place), Ramachandra could fund his work for many years. Joseph Wright of Derby was barely appreciated in his own lifetime (the portrait was not one of the Gibsons’ prized acquisitions), but his work had gained popularity over the years. The painting would be worth a small fortune in the twenty-first century. Koranda deplored the idea of doing anything dishonest, especially the theft of a work of art, but he felt obligated and thought it could be done without too much difficulty.

* * * *

At the end of Koranda’s third week in Somerset the Gibsons announced a dinner party. The landowners of the neighborhood were a tight-knit group and word had spread that the Gibsons had a foreign guest. But the official reason for the party was the impending visit of Charlotte Gibson’s brother, Florestan Porter. He came to visit for a few weeks every year at this time. Porter was a member of Parliament who relished the elevated status of his position.

There are some people we meet with whom we feel an instant connection. To Koranda, Florestan Porter was just the opposite, a person whom he disliked from the first moment he set eyes on him. And the feeling was mutual. Florestan was a thin, stiff and haughty man, decidedly homely, with a permanent sour expression on his face. It was clear that Charlotte had inherited all the handsomeness and charm that was available in the Porter gene pool. He was used to people fawning over him and catering to his every whim. When the MP was introduced to the American he did not smile at all, and barely nodded towards Koranda. The American made more of an effort to be civil.

The undisputed center of attention during the dinner was Charles Koranda, a development deeply resented by the MP. Koranda had mixed feelings about attending a formal dinner party. He was enthralled by social conversation, but dreaded it at the same time. He was seated between a Mrs Hubbard (sporting a multi-stranded necklace of pearls), and a Viscount, one of the Gibsons’ nearest neighbors.

He noticed that whenever he spoke, which was not often, the other guests paid attention. He realized that his studied reticence might be contributing to a sense of mystery about himself. He didn’t intend any of this. He was not one to put on airs, nor was he so vain as to think that he really was mysterious (certainly no one thought so back home!), but he was different, in a way the others couldn’t quite define for themselves. His enthusiasm for certain subjects, his complete ignorance of others, the unexpected and sometimes incomprehensible opinions he expressed only served to enhance the perception of inscrutability. Dr Gibson exchanged knowing glances with his wife when their guests later commented on the enigmatic charm of their American guest.

He thought he knew something about the literature of the period––he had read his share of Byron, Shelley, Keats and Scott––but when other writers were discussed he was lost. William Hazlitt? Who was that? They all had read him and seemed perplexed that he hadn’t. He said that he really admired Charles Dickens and had read his works many times. But all Koranda got in return were blank looks. (Wasn’t Oliver Twist published yet?) He felt like a complete fool at that moment.

But worse was yet to come, when the subject of conversation turned to the new railway line that had just been opened between Manchester and Liverpool, the first in the country. There were varying opinions as to whether this was a good thing or not. Florestan Porter was especially vehement in his opposition to the railways. Koranda couldn’t resist and launched into an animated speech, one he was to regret later.

“We can hardly imagine what the future might hold for us, what the advancements of modern technology might bring,” he declared. “There might be trains that travel at speeds like 150 miles per hour, there could be flying machines that transport hundreds of people at once, there might be a tunnel built under the channel––imagine having breakfast in London and lunch in Paris! There might be devices that enable us to contact any person in the world at any time! Mankind might explore space and send men to the walk on the surface of the moon……and they’ll do it half a dozen times!”

He had said too much. There was stunned silence and all eyes were on him. It was Mrs Hubbard who rescued the moment, addressing him directly: “Mr Koranda, you speak on these matters with such conviction and enthusiasm. It is really quite charming.” He was determined to control his tongue better after that.

Florestan Porter was another matter. For the first part of the dinner he barely acknowledged Koranda and all but ignored him in the general conversation. During the pause before the serving of dessert, the conversation, limited to the far end of the table, turned to politics. Koranda kept silent as he knew he was out of his depth on the subject. That is, until Porter addressed him directly:

“Mr Koranda, what is your feeling on the slavery issue? I understand there is considerable debate in the United States at present on the subject.” He bent forward over the table, peering directly in Koranda’s direction.

Koranda was at first startled to be singled out, but his thoughts on slavery were well-formed and he had no hesitation in expressing his abhorrence of the institution. He finished by saying, “I am sure that the controversy will end in Great Britain with the abolition of slavery in the Empire, and sooner than you think.” Dr Gibson looked at him and smiled, recalling their previous conversation on the subject.

But Porter would not have it. “Spoken with the naiveté one expects from an American, and without any understanding of our traditions and social arrangements. You have no idea what will happen in this country or any other for that matter.” With that he turned away from Koranda, conversing with his neighbor to the left.

Koranda was taken aback by this unprovoked and unabashed insult. Charlotte Gibson lowered her head, too mortified to say anything. She was accustomed to the outspoken manner of her brother. The moment passed and general good feeling resumed around the table when the dessert was brought in and the subject of conversation changed.

The evening came to an end and the guests left. On his way upstairs Porter passed Koranda, muttering a frosty ‘good night’ in his direction.

Before he was ‘launched’ and transported to 1832, Ramachandra had provided Koranda with a list of possible times for his return. He had to be exactly in the right place at the right time or it wouldn’t work. Koranda mentioned this to the Gibsons, but was loathe to think about a departure; he was still enjoying himself immensely. By the following week there were only a few possibilities of return left and Koranda didn’t want to press his luck. He thought it best to say nothing directly. But first, there was business to attend to: how to get his hands on the Wright self-portrait.

The action was planned for a warm and overcast June night. He approached Andrew and asked him to leave the door to the kitchen unlocked that evening. The young man at first looked baffled, wondering why Koranda would ask that of him, but he readily agreed. Fortunately, Andrew was not the curious type and didn’t ask many questions. Koranda slept for a few hours and awoke at 2 AM, when everyone in the main house was sure to be fast asleep. He put on his shirt and trousers and made his way, barefoot, to the main house as quietly as possible, ever so gently opening the kitchen door and stepping inside. He lit a single candle. It provided just enough light for him to see his way through the dark room. From the very beginning of his visit he had gotten on famously with the house dog, Pluto, and he encountered an enthusiastic welcome from the animal whose tail beat wildly and made a bit of a racket. After calming him down, Koranda continued on through the dining room and into the sitting-room, where he had first come to know the Gibsons.

He wasn’t sure what excuse he would give if he were found here, in the middle of the night, in the Gibson’s drawing-room. He just hoped that it wouldn’t come to that. When he was in this room for the first time, admiring the furnishings, he had scouted the location of the Wright painting and had spotted it immediately. He knew exactly what it looked like as he had a copy of the portrait with him: a young man, gazing directly at the viewer, wearing a green coat with a fur collar, a curious silver turban on his head. A pang of remorse briefly overcame Koranda as he realized that he was going to commit a robbery against the Gibsons. Chances were that they would never even find out that their picture had been replaced with a copy. At least, he hoped so.

Koranda carefully placed the candle holder on a table near the painting (the Sheraton table he had so admired), and took the tools he had brought along out of his pocket, a screw driver and a small pair of pliers. He lifted the Wright off the wall. Fortunately, it was not very big. Good thing I don’t have to make off with Rembrandt’s Night Watch, he mused in an attempt to cheer himself up. He removed the painting from the frame. That was the easy part. The next operation was not so easy: he had to carefully remove every tack around the periphery of the inner stretcher frame in order to free the canvas so that it could be rolled up. The tacks were fairly easy to pull out and he was grateful for that. He put each one on the table. He slowly rolled the canvas as he had been instructed and inserted it under his shirt. Then he took the reproduction, a clever digital scan onto modern canvas (provided by the university art department), and prayed that the size was the same as the original. It fit perfectly. He muffled the noise of hammering the tacks back in with a cloth he had brought. He had just finished the task and placed the faux canvas into the frame when he heard a voice behind him.

“Are you so interested in art that you need to steal over in the middle of the night to examine it?” It was the unmistakably frigid voice of Florestan Porter, emanating from the gloom.

He nearly dropped the painting, he was so startled. Porter was in his nightshirt, appearing as an evil specter in the weak light of the candle. “Oh, good evening,” Koranda managed to stammer. “I couldn’t sleep and came over to have a look at the collection. But the light is very poor with only one candle and the glare was a nuisance so I…”

“I can see very well what you are up to,” said Porter. “You foreigners are all the same, not to be trusted. And you, Mr Charles Koranda,” he spat out with unmistakable disdain, “for all your supposed charm, you are an especially slippery character.”

“I meant no harm, really. Sorry to hear that you are so ill-disposed towards me, but I can’t help that.” With that Koranda turned to put the painting back in its place on the wall. Porter watched him in stony silence, not moving from his place in the dimness. “I’ll wish you a good night then,” offered Koranda in as composed a manner as he could manage. He headed back the way he came in, not wanting to prolong the conversation. Porter watched him exit the room, but said nothing further. How long has he been standing there? The sneaky bastard! What had he seen? What did he mean when he said, ‘I can see very well what you are up to’? This was a disaster. Now that he possessed the Wright canvas it was time to leave, and the sooner the better.

As he entered the kitchen he felt Porter’s hand on his arm. “Where do you think you’re going?” said Porter. “I’m not done with you yet.”

“Unhand me, you slimy vulture! I know all about you and your dalliances.” This was a shot in the dark. Shortly after Porter’s arrival, Koranda had walked in on the end of a conversation between Charlotte and a maid who could not have been more than sixteen-years-old. She had been in tears and had said something like, ‘I cannot be in the same room with him, please keep him away from me.’ Koranda surmised that the ‘him’ must have been Porter. Was Porter a lech? It seemed very likely. Seeing the startled look on Porter’s face, Koranda continued, “You despicable seducer of children, how would you like all of London to know what kind of man you are? There is nothing you can or will do to me. You are nothing but a puffed-up baboon!” At that, Porter’s jaw dropped. Koranda wrenched his arm free, turned on his heels and briskly headed for the door.

He returned to his room. He was relieved to note that the next opportunity to return to the twenty-first century was coming up soon. He would have preferred to wait a few days, maybe even prepare the Gibsons for his departure, but that wasn’t possible now. He would have to skulk away, literally into the dark of night. He sat at his desk and hurriedly wrote a note for the Gibsons, expressing both his gratitude and sadness at leaving them. He enclosed the note in an envelope, sealed it, and left it on the desk.

He would have to be at the very place he was originally found, in the same country lane, at 7 AM. He couldn’t sleep, of course, and was too agitated to wait in the room. What if Porter decided to seek him out? He changed into the clothes he had arrived in, carefully folding the trousers, shirt and coat he had been wearing and placing them neatly on the bed. He was sorry to leave the boots. The ‘halo’ was recovered from its secure hiding place and put under his shirt, along with the rolled-up painting. He began the long walk in the dark.

Finding the same place with some difficulty, he positioned himself cross-legged in the now wet grass. It was completely quiet and nearly black, a solitude one could rarely find in the modern world with its light pollution and constant noise. It had become chilly and he wished he still had the woolen coat. Placing the metal band on his head, he waited for the moment of his transport to arrive. It did, and the return went smoothly.

He found himself in the laboratory, seated in the very same place from which he had departed some three and a half weeks before. Ramachandra and his assistants were all eager to hear about his adventure. Koranda told them everything they wanted to know, and Ramachandra was ecstatic when he handed over the Wright self-portrait. But his own enthusiasm was dampened by the realization that he had done something ethically unacceptable. He would have to live with the fact that he had deceived (even if they never realized it) the very people who had shown him such kindness and generosity. That would always remain a troublesome memory.

The next morning the Gibsons came down to breakfast at the usual time. They had already begun eating when Florestan shuffled in, looking a bit out of sorts. It was unusual for him to be late, but his sleep had been interrupted by the confrontation in the middle of the night. He went to the buffet and put some toast and jam on his plate, then seated himself in his usual place. When the server had finished pouring the tea he cleared his throat, always an indication that he had something important to say.

“Sister Charlotte, Callum,” he cleared his throat once more. “There were goings-on in this house during the night that you should be made aware of. It appears that your American guest, Mr Koranda…”

Charlotte cut him short. She was still annoyed with him for his rudeness to Koranda at the party. “I forbid you to mention Mr Koranda’s name,” she declared firmly, “and I don’t care to hear your tittle-tattle.”

“But Charlotte, I think you need to hear this, you would be shocked, as was I, that…”

“Enough, Florestan! To use an expression I learnt from Charles: you may put a sock in it!”

Porter was speechless. His sister was the only person in the world who could talk to him in that manner. He wasn’t quite sure what the expression meant, but he understood its intent. He stared at his toast and did not attempt to say any more on the subject. So, the Gibsons never learned about Koranda’s conduct. And they never discovered that their painting had been switched with a copy.

Sir Walter Scott did pass away on September the 21st of that year, just as Koranda had foretold. That day turned even sadder for the Gibsons as it again brought to mind their extraordinary friend from the future. Charlotte wished she had some memento of him––the magenta shirt, perhaps––but he had left nothing. Jenny the parlormaid, however, had pilfered Koranda’s underwear from the wash and stashed these curious items among her own things. Who was Calvin Klein, she wondered, and why was his name stitched into Mr Koranda’s undergarments? It was quite perplexing.

When Joseph Wright of Derby’s long lost self-portrait resurfaced, the art world was abuzz with excitement, and it fetched a handsome price at auction. Ramachandra offered Koranda a cut of the sale price, ten per cent, but he refused it. His troubled conscience was somewhat eased when he reflected that, by stealing the painting in the nineteenth century, he had saved it from destruction in the twentieth. Maybe it hadn’t been such a regrettable venture after all.

 

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