Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Veiled Portrait by Arthur Conan Doyle 1895


THE VEILED PORTRAIT by Arthur Conan Doyle 1895

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It has been asserted that one cannot hold intercourse with that which is generally called the Unseen World, or behold anything supernatural, and live; but these ideas, from my own experience, I am inclined to doubt.

In the year subsequent to the great Bengal mutiny, I found myself at home on sick leave. My health had been injured by service in India, and by our sufferings consequent on the revolt; while my nervous system had been so seriously shaken by a grape-shot wound received at Lucknow, that it was completely changed, and I became cognizant of many things so utterly new to me, and so bewildering, that until I read Baron Reichenbach's work on magnetism and crystalism, I feared that I was becoming insane. I was sensible of the power of a magnet over me, though it might be three rooms distant, and twice, in darkness which seemed perfect to others, my room became filled with light; but the Baron holds that darkness is full of light, and that to increase the sensitiveness of the visual organs is to render that rare and dissipated light susceptible, with all that it may contain.

I was now compelled to acknowledge the existence of that new power in nature which the Baron calls the Odic Light, and of many other phenomena that are described in "Der Geist in der Natur," of Christian Oersted—the understanding that pervades all things.

But to my story.

Nearly a year had elapsed since the mutiny. The massacres at Delhi, Lucknow, Cawnpore, and elsewhere had been fearfully avenged by that army of retribution which marched from Umballah, and I found myself in London, enfeebled, enervated, and, as the saying is, "weak as a child." The bustle of the great capital stunned and bewildered me; thus I gladly accepted a hearty invitation which I received from Sidney Warren, one of "ours," but latterly of the Staff Corps, to spend a few weeks—months if I chose— at his place in Herts; a fine old house of the Tudor times, approached from the London road by an avenue that was a grand triumphal arch of nature's own creation, with lofty interlacing boughs and hanging foliage.

Who, thought I, that was lord of such a place could dream of broiling in India—of sweltering in the white-washed barrack at Dumdum, or the thatched cantonments of Delhi or Meerut!

My friend came hurrying forth to meet me.

"How goes it, old-fellow? Welcome to my new quarters," he exclaimed.

"Well, Sidney, old man, how are you?"

Then we grasped each other's hands as only brother soldiers do.

I found Warren, whom I had not seen since the commencement of the revolt, nearly as much changed and shattered in constitution as myself; but I knew that he had lost those whom he loved most in the world amid the massacre at Meerut. He received me, however, with all the warmth of an old comrade, for we had a thousand topics in common to con over; while the regiment, which neither of us might ever see again—he certainly not, as he had sold out—would prove an endless source of conversation.

Sidney Warren was in his fortieth year, but looked considerably older. His once dark hair and coal-black moustache were quite grizzled now. The expression of his face was one of intense sadness, as if some secret grief consumed him; while there was a weird and far-seeing expression that led me to fear he was not fated to be long in this world. Yet he had gone through the storm of the Indian war without receiving even a scratch! Why was this?

Before I had spent two days with Sidney, he had shown me all the objects of interest around the Warren and in it— the portrait gallery, with its courtiers in high ruffs, and dames in the long stomachers of one period and decollete dresses of another; his collection of Indian antiquities, amassed at the plundering of Delhi; and those which were more interesting to me, ponderous suits of mail which had been hacked and battered in the wars of the Roses, and a torn pennon unfurled by Warren's troop of horse, "for God and the King," at Naseby.

But there was one object which he would neither show nor permit me to look upon, and which seemed to make him shiver or shudder whenever it caught his eye, and this was a picture of some kind in the library—a room he very rarely entered. It was the size of a life protrait, but covered closely by a green-baize hanging. Good taste compelled me to desist from talking to him on the subject, but I resolved to gratify my curiosity on the first convenient occasion; so one day when he was absent at the stable court I drew back the hanging of this mysterious picture.

It proved to be the full-length portrait of a very beautiful girl—a proud and stately one, too—bordering on blooming womanhood. Her features were clearly cut and classic; she had an olive-colored complexion, that seemed to tell of another land than England, yet the type of her rare beauty was purely English. Her forehead was broad and low; her dark eyes, that seemed to haunt and follow me, were deeply set, with black brows well defined; her chin was rather massive, as if indicating resolution of character, yet the soft, ripe lips were full of sweetness; while the gorgeous coils of her dark hair were crisp and wavy. Her attire was a green riding-habit, the skirt of which was gathered in her left hand, while the right grasped the bridle of her horse.

It was not a portrait of his wife, whom I remember to have been a fair-haired little woman; so who was this mysterious lady? I cannot describe the emotion this portrait excited within me; but I started and let fall the curtain, with a distinct sensation of some one, or something I could not see, being close beside me; so I hurried from the shady library into the sunshine. Lovely though the face—I can see it yet in all its details—it haunted me with an unpleasant pertinacity, impossible either to analyze or portray. But I was a creature of fancies then.

"Herein," thought I, "lurks some mystery, which may never be cleared up to me." But in this surmise I was wrong, for one night—the night of Sunday, the 10th May, the first anniversary of the outbreak at Meerut, after we had discussed an excellent dinner, with a bottle or two of Moselle, and betaken us to iced brandy pawnee (for so we still loved to call it), and to the "soothing weed," on the sofas of the smoking-room, Warren became suddenly seized by one of those confidential fits which many men unaccountably have at such times, and, while he unsparingly and bitterly reproached himself for the part he had acted in it, I drew from him, little by little, the secret story of his life.

Some ten years before those days of which I write, when in the Guards, and deeply dipped in debt by extravagance, he had, unknown to his family, married secretly a beautiful girl who was penniless, at the very time his friends were seeking to retrieve his fortune by a wealthy alliance. An exchange into the Line—"the slidingscale"—became necessary, thus he was gazetted to our regiment in India, at a period when his young wife was in extremely delicate health; so much so that the idea of her voyaging round the Cape-there were no P. and O. Liners then—was not to be thought of, as it was expressly forbidden by the medical men; so they were to be separated for a time; and that time of parting, so dreaded by Constance, came inexorably.

The last fatal evening came—the last Sidney was to spend with her. His strapped overlands and bullock-trunks, his sword and cap, both cased, were already in the entrance hall; the morrow's morning would see him off by the train for Southampton, and his place would be vacant; and she should see his fond hazel eyes no more.

"Tears again!" said he, almost impatiently, while tenderly caressing the dark and glossy hair of his girl-wife; "why on earth are you so sad, Conny, about this temporary separation?"

"Would that I could be certain it is only such!" she exclaimed. "Sad; oh, can you ask me, Sidney, darling? The presentiment of a great sorrow to come is hanging over me.

"A presentiment, Constance! Do not indulge in this folly."

"If I did not love you dearly, Sidney, would such a painful emotion rack my heart?"

"It is the merest superstition, darling, and you will get over it when I am fairly away."

Her tender eyes regarded him wistfully for a moment, and then her tears fell faster at the contemplation of the coming loneliness.

After a pause, she asked:

"Are there many passengers going out with you?"

"A few—in the cuddy," he replied, carelessly.

"Do you know any of them?"

"Yes; one or two fellows on the staff."

"And the ladies?" she asked, after another pause.

"I don't know, Conny dear; what do they matter to me?"

"I heard incidentally that—that Miss Dashwood was going out in your vessel."

"Indeed; I believe she will."

Constance shivered, for with the name of this finished flirt that of her husband had been more than once linked, and his change of color was unseen by her as he turned to manipulate a cigar. So for four, perhaps six months, these two would be together upon the sea.

Constance knew too well the irritable nature of her husband's temper to say more on the subject of her secret thoughts; and deeply loth was she that such ideas should embitter the few brief hours they were to be together now; so a silence ensued, which, after a time, she broke, while taking between her slender fingers a hand of Sidney, who was leaning half moodily, half listlessly, against the mantel-piece, twisting his moustache with a somewhat mingled expression of face.

"Sidney, darling," said she entreatingly, "do forgive ma if I am dull and sad—so triste—this evening."

"I do forgive you, little one."

"You know, Sidney, that I would die for you!"

"Yes; but don't, Conny—for I hate scenes," said he, playfully kissing her sweetly sad upturned face; and the poor girl was forced to be contented with this matter-of-fact kind of tenderness.
So the dreaded morrow came with its sad moment of parting.

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To muffle the sound of the departing wheels she buried her head, with all its wealth of dark, dishevelled hair, among the pillows of her bed, and some weeks—weeks of the most utter loneliness—elapsed, ere she left it, with the keen and ardent desire to recover health and strength, to the end that she might follow her husband over the world of waters and rejoin him; but the strength and health, so necessary for the journey, were long of coming back to her.

She had hoped he would write to her before sailing from Southampton—a single line would have satisfied the hungry cravings of her heart; but, as he did not do so, she supposed there was not time; yet the transport lay three days in the docks after the troops were on board. He would write by some passing ship, he had said, and one letter, dated from Ascension, reached her; but its cold and careless tone struck a mortal chill to the sensitive heart of Constance, and one or two terms of endearment it contained were manifestly forced and ill-expressed.

"He writes me thus," she muttered, with her hand pressed upon her heaving bosom; "thus—and with that woman, perhaps, by his side!'

She consulted the map, and saw how far, far away on the lonely ocean was that island speck. Months had elapsed since he had been there; so she knew that he must be in India now, and she had the regular mails to look to with confidence—a confidence, alas! thatsoon faded away. Long, tender, and passionate was the letter she wrote in reply; she fondly fixed the time when she proposed to leave England and rejoin him, if he sent her the necessary remittances; but mail after mail came in without any tidings from Sidney, and she felt all the unspeakable misery of watching the postman for letters that never, never came!

Yet she never ceased to write, entreating him for answers and assuring him of unswerving affection.

Slowly, heavily, and imperceptibly a year passed away— a whole year—to her now a black eternity of time!

"Could Sidney be dead? "she asked herself with terror; but she knew that his family (who were all unaware of her existence) had never been in mourning, as they must infallibly have been in the event of such a calamity; and in her simplicity she never thought of applying to the Horse Guards for information concerning him—more information than she might quite have cared to learn.

Her old thoughts concerning Miss Dashwood took a strange hold of her imagination now; a hundred "trifles light as air" came back most gallingly to memory and took coherent and tangible shapes; but a stray number of the "India Mail" informed her of the marriage of Miss Dashwood—her betenoir—to a Major Milton; and also that the regiment to which Sidney belonged "was moving up country," a phrase to her perplexing and vague.

Her funds were gone—her friends were few and poor. Her jewels—his treasured presents—were first turned into cash; then the furniture of her pretty villa, and next the villa itself, with its sweet rose-garden, had to be exchanged for humbler apartments in a meaner street; and, ere long, Constance Warren found, that if she was to live, it must be by her own unaided efforts; and for five years she maintained a desperate struggle for existence—five years!

A lady going to India "wanted a young person as a governess and companion."

To India—to India! On her knees Constance prayed that her application might prove successful; and her prayer was heard for out of some hundred letters—from a few which were selected—the tenor of hers suited best the taste of the lady in question. She said nothing of her marriage or of her apparent desertion; but as her wedding-ring, which, with a fond superstition of the heart, she never drew from her finger, told a tale, she had to pass for a widow.

So in the fulness of time she found herself far away from England, and duly installed with an Anglo-Indian family in one of the stately villas of the European quarter of Calcutta —a veritable palace in the city of palaces, overlooking the esplanade before Fort William—in charge of one sickly, but gentle little pale-faced girl.

She had been a month there when her employer's family proposed to visit some relatives at Meerut, where she heard that Sidney's regiment was cantoned! To her it seemed as if the hand of Fate was in all this. Oh the joy of such tidings! Some one there must be able to unravel the horrible mystery involving his fate; for by this time she had ascertained that his name was out of the corps; but her heart suggested that he might have exchanged into another.

"If alive, is he worth caring for?" She often asked this of herself, but thrust aside the idea, and pursued with joy the long journey up country by river steamers, dawk-boats, and otherwise, on the Ganges to Jehangeerabad, from whence they were to travel by carriages to the place of their destination, some fifty miles distant.

On the way Constance had an addition to her charge in the person of a little boy, who, with his ayah, was going to join his parents at Meerut. This little boy was more than usually beautiful, with round and dimpled cheeks, dark hazel eyes, curly golden hair, and a sweet and winning smile. Something in the child's face or its expression attracted deeply the attention of Constance, and seemed to stir some memory in her heart. Where had she seen those eyes before?

She drew the boy caressingly towards her, and when kissing his fair and open forehead, her eyes fell involuntarily on a ring that secured his necktie, a mere blue ribbon. It was of gold, and on it were graven the initials C. and S. with a lover's knot between. These were those of herself and her husband, and the ring was one she had seen him wear daily. Constance trembled in every limb; she felt a deadly paleness overspread her face, and the room in which she sat swam round her; but on recovering her self-possession, she said:

"Child, let me look at this ring."

The wondering boy placed in her hand the trinket, which she had not the slightest doubt of having seen years before in London.

"Who gave you this, my child?" she asked.

"My papa."

"Your papa?—what is your name?"

"Sidney."

"What else ?" she asked impetuously.

"Sidney Warren Milton."

"Thank God! But how came you to be named so?

There is some mystery in this—a mystery that must soon be solved now. Where were you born, dear little Sidney?"

"In Calcutta."

"What is your age, child?"

"Next year, I shall be seven years old."

"Seven—how strange it is that you have the name you bear!"

"It is my papa's," said the boy, with a little proud irritability of manner.

"Where did your papa live before he came to Calcutta?"

"I don't know—in many places—soldiers always do."

"He is a soldier?"

"My papa is Major Milton, and lives in the cantonments at Meerut."

"A little time, and I shall know all," replied poor Constance, caressing the boy with great tenderness.

On arriving at Meerut, however, she found herself ill— faint and feverish, so that for days she was confined to her bed, where she lay wakeful by night, watching the red fireflies flashing about the green jalousies, and full of strange, wild dreams by day. She had but one keen and burning desire—to see Major Milton, and to learn from his lips the fate of her husband. On the evening of the fifth day—the evening of the 10th of May—she was lying on her pillow, watching the red sunshine fading on the ruined mosques, and Abu's stately tomb, when just as the sunset gun pealed over the cantonments, the ayah brought her a card, inscribed "Major Milton—Staff Corps."

"Desire the Major to come to me!" said Constance in a broken voice, and terribly convulsed by emotion; for now she was on the eve of knowing all.

"Here to the mehm sahib's bedside?" asked the astonished ayah.

"Here instantly—go—go!"

Endued with new strength, as the woman withdrew, she sprang from her bed, put on her slippers, threw rouna her an ample cashmere dressing robe, and seated herself in a bamboo chair, trembling in every fibre. In a mirror opposite she could see that her face was as white as snow. The door was opened.

"Major Milton," said a voice that made her tremble, and attired in undress uniform, with helmet in hand, her husband, looking scarcely a day older, stood gazing at her in utter bewilderment. He gave one convulsive start, and then stood rcoted to the spot; but no expression or glance of tenderness escaped him. His whole aspect bore the impress of terror.

Years had elapsed as a dream, and they were again face to face, those two, whom no man might put asunder softness, sorrow, and reproach faded from the face of Constance. Her broad, low forehead became stern; her deepset, dark eyes sparkled perilously; her full lips became set, and her chin seemed to express more than ever resolution.

"Oh, Constance—Constance," he faltered, "I know not what to say!"

"It may well be so, Sidney" (and at the utterance of his name her lips quivered). "So you are Major Milton, and the supposed husband of Miss Dashwood?"

There was a long pause, after which she said:

"I ask not the cause of your most cruel desertion; but whence this name of Milton?"

"A property was left me—and—but, of course, you have long since ceased to love me, Constance?"

"You actually dare to take an upbraiding tone to me!" she exclaimed, her dark eyes flashing fire. Then looking upward appealingly, she wailed, "Oh, my God! my God! and this is the man for whom, during these bitter years, I have been eating my own heart!"

"Pardon me, Constance; you may now learn that there is no gauge to measure the treachery of which the human heart in its weakness is capable. Yet there has been a worm in mine that has never died."

She wrung her hands, and then said, with something of her old softness of manner:

"You surely loved me once, Sidney?"

"I did." He drew nearer, but she recoiled from him.

"Then whence this cruel change?"

"Does not some one write, that we love, and think we love truly, and yet find another to whom one will cling as if it required these two hearts to make a perfect whole?"

"Most accursed sophistry! But if you have no pity, have you not fear?"

"I have great fear," said he in a broken voice; "thus, Constance, by the love you once bore me, I beseech you to have pity, not on me, but on my little boy, and his poor mother—preserve their happiness"

"And sacrifice my own?" said she in a hollow voice.

"Spare, and do not expose me—my commission—my position here--"

"Neither shall be lost through me," she replied, in a voice that grew more and more weak; "but leave me— leave me—the air is suffocating—the light has left my eyes. Farewell, Sidney—kiss your child, for my sake."

He drew near to take her hand, but she repulsed him with a wild gesture of despair, and throwing up her arms, fell back in her seat, with a gurgle in her throat, her head on one side and her jaw fallen.

"Dead—quite dead!" was his first exclamation, and with his terror was blended a certain selfish emotion of satisfaction and relief at his escape. The blood again flowed freely in his veins, and he was roused by the cantonment ghurries clanging the hour of nine.

"Help—help!" cried he; but no help came, and as he hurried away, the sudden din of musket-shots, of shrieks and yells, announced that the great revolt had begun at Meerut, and that the expected massacre of the Europeans had commenced. In that butchery, those he loved most on earth perished, and midnight saw him wifeless and childless, lurking in misery and alone in a mangotope, on the road to Kurnaul.

........................................

While listening to the narrative of my friend Sidney, whom I had always known as Warren, rather than Milton, the clock on the mantelpiece struck nine, and he said in a broken voice:

"It was at this very hour, twelve months ago, that my boy and his mother were murdered by the 3d Cavalry, at the moment that Constance was dying!"

As he spoke, a strange white light suddenly filled one end of the smoking-room, and amid it there came gradually, but distinctly to view, two figures; one was a little boy with golden hair, the other a woman whose left arm was around him—a beautiful woman, with clearly-cut features, masses of dark hair curling over a low, broad forehead, lips full and handsome, with a massive chin and classic throat—the woman of the veiled picture, line for line, but to all appearance living and breathing, with a beautiful smile in her eyes, and wearing, not the riding-habit, but a floating crape-like white garment, impossible to describe. There was a strange weird brightness in her face—the transfigured brightness of great joy and greater love.

"Constance—Constance and my child!" cried Sidney, in a voice that rose to a shriek; and like a dissolving view, the light, and all we looked on witt eyes transfixed, faded away!

I was aware of an excess of sensitiveness, and that my heart was beating with painful rapidity. I did not become insensible, but some time elasped before I became aware that lights were in the room, and that several servants, whom my friend's cry had summoned in haste and alarm, were endeavoring to rouse him to consciousness from a fit that had seized him; but from that fit he never recovered. His heavy, stertorous breathing gradually grew less and less., and ere a doctor came, he had ceased to respire.

His death—sudden as hers on that eventful night, but a retributive one—was declared to be apoplexy; but I knew otherwise. Since then, though the effect of the grape-shot wound on my nervous system has quite passed away, I feel myself compelled to agree with the hackneyed remark of Hamlet, that "there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in our philosophy."

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