Edgar Allen Poe’s tale “The Oval Portrait” —
The chateau into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary- in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room- since it was already night- to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed- and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.
Long- long I read- and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.
But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought- to make sure that my vision had not deceived me- to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.
That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.
The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea- must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:
“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!
“The Kiss,” a short story by Kate Chopin—
It was still quite light out of doors, but inside with the curtains drawn and the smouldering fire sending out a dim, uncertain glow, the room was full of deep shadows.
Brantain sat in one of these shadows; it had overtaken him and he did not mind. The obscurity lent him courage to keep his eyes fastened as ardently as he liked upon the girl who sat in the firelight.
She was very handsome, with a certain fine, rich coloring that belongs to the healthy brune type. She was quite composed, as she idly stroked the satiny coat of the cat that lay curled in her lap, and she occasionally sent a slow glance into the shadow where her companion sat. They were talking low, of indifferent things which plainly were not the things that occupied their thoughts. She knew that he loved her—a frank, blustering fellow without guile enough to conceal his feelings, and no desire to do so. For two weeks past he had sought her society eagerly and persistently. She was confidently waiting for him to declare himself and she meant to accept him. The rather insignificant and unattractive Brantain was enormously rich; and she liked and required the entourage which wealth could give her.
During one of the pauses between their talk of the last tea and the next reception the door opened and a young man entered whom Brantain knew quite well. The girl turned her face toward him. A stride or two brought him to her side, and bending over her chair—before she could suspect his intention, for she did not realize that he had not seen her visitor—he pressed an ardent, lingering kiss upon her lips.
Brantain slowly arose; so did the girl arise, but quickly, and the newcomer stood between them, a little amusement and some defiance struggling with the confusion in his face.
“I believe,” stammered Brantain, “I see that I have stayed too long. I—I had no idea—that is, I must wish you good-by.” He was clutching his hat with both hands, and probably did not perceive that she was extending her hand to him, her presence of mind had not completely deserted her; but she could not have trusted herself to speak.
“Hang me if I saw him sitting there, Nattie! I know it’s deuced awkward for you. But I hope you’ll forgive me this once—this very first break. Why, what’s the matter?”
“Don’t touch me; don’t come near me,” she returned angrily. “What do you mean by entering the house without ringing?”
“I came in with your brother, as I often do,” he answered coldly, in self-justification. “We came in the side way. He went upstairs and I came in here hoping to find you. The explanation is simple enough and ought to satisfy you that the misadventure was unavoidable. But do say that you forgive me, Nathalie,” he entreated, softening.
“Forgive you! You don’t know what you are talking about. Let me pass. It depends upon—a good deal whether I ever forgive you.”
At that next reception which she and Brantain had been talking about she approached the young man with a delicious frankness of manner when she saw him there.
“Will you let me speak to you a moment or two, Mr. Brantain?” she asked with an engaging but perturbed smile. He seemed extremely unhappy; but when she took his arm and walked away with him, seeking a retired corner, a ray of hope mingled with the almost comical misery of his expression. She was apparently very outspoken.
“Perhaps I should not have sought this interview, Mr. Brantain; but—but, oh, I have been very uncomfortable, almost miserable since that little encounter the other afternoon. When I thought how you might have misinterpreted it, and believed things”—hope was plainly gaining the ascendancy over misery in Brantain’s round, guileless face—”Of course, I know it is nothing to you, but for my own sake I do want you to understand that Mr. Harvy is an intimate friend of long standing. Why, we have always been like cousins—like brother and sister, I may say. He is my brother’s most intimate associate and often fancies that he is entitled to the same privileges as the family. Oh, I know it is absurd, uncalled for, to tell you this; undignified even,” she was almost weeping, “but it makes so much difference to me what you think of—of me.” Her voice had grown very low and agitated. The misery had all disappeared from Brantain’s face.
“Then you do really care what I think, Miss Nathalie? May I call you Miss Nathalie?” They turned into a long, dim corridor that was lined on either side with tall, graceful plants. They walked slowly to the very end of it. When they turned to retrace their steps Brantain’s face was radiant and hers was triumphant.
Harvy was among the guests at the wedding; and he sought her out in a rare moment when she stood alone.
“Your husband,” he said, smiling, “has sent me over to kiss you.”
A quick blush suffused her face and round polished throat. “I suppose it’s natural for a man to feel and act generously on an occasion of this kind. He tells me he doesn’t want his marriage to interrupt wholly that pleasant intimacy which has existed between you and me. I don’t know what you’ve been telling him,” with an insolent smile, “but he has sent me here to kiss you.”
She felt like a chess player who, by the clever handling of his pieces, sees the game taking the course intended. Her eyes were bright and tender with a smile as they glanced up into his; and her lips looked hungry for the kiss which they invited.
“But, you know,” he went on quietly, “I didn’t tell him so, it would have seemed ungrateful, but I can tell you. I’ve stopped kissing women; it’s dangerous.”
Well, she had Brantain and his million left. A person can’t have everything in this world; and it was a little unreasonable of her to expect it.
“Cowshed,” a short story by Robert Walser—
I went to see Bonn. I beheld him in his famous checked Sherlock Holmes suit. The sight of his tawny leather spats devastated me. But it is far from my intention to make so bold as to speak of Bonn, whom I also learned to admire as Edmund Kean in the play by Dumas. Today, with the kind reader’s permission, I wish to speak of the Cowshed, an artistic singsong and jinglejangle establishment that lies in the northern reaches of our beloved city, Berlin. At the Cowshed, among other things, I met and learned to revere beyond all measure a Swiss girl who figured as a waitress there. There are figures galore at the Cowshed. I myself am a not unpopular, at times even celebrated regular. When I set foot on the premises, which are redolent of an aging, half-dead elegance, the publican gets up from his seat where he is keeping watch and greets me with great amicability by making a thoroughly courteous, suave bow, the significance of which is that I should buy a round of cognac. Oh, the conduct I display here at the Cowshed. It resembles the conduct of a Prince Dolgoroucki, a Count Osten-Sacken, a Prince Poniatowski. I always treat the artistes assembled upon the small triangular stage, which is stuck in a corner as if lost in indeterminacy and incertitude, to a boot. The significance of the term boot in localities such as the Cowshed is no doubt unfamiliar to most ladies and gentlemen of a literary bent. A boot of this sort is quite simply a tankard of beer shaped like a lady’s boot, made of glass and holding nearly two liters. The music made at the Cowshed is often ear-rending; nonetheless I do adore it and dream of divinely beautiful things whenever it creeps into my ear to ensnare me with melodies. Invariably I have some refreshment placed upon the fortepiano of the bushy-haired, gasconading lout of a band leader. This amenity, which he loses no time in appreciating and, as for the rest, most artfully guzzling, ah pardon, I mean drinking, consists in nothing other than various glasses of beer. Yes, I do have to say that quite a lot of money exits my pockets at the Cowshed. Excellent interest accrues on the capital thus invested, and this interest takes the form of merriments that give me no end of pleasure. For the most part I am a most cleverly respectable fellow, but at times, at times when the mood happens to strike.
“In the Bedroom” by Gilbert Sorrentino. From A Strange Commonplace.
“The Yellow Paint,” a short fable by Robert Louis Stevenson—
In a certain city there lived a physician who sold yellow paint. This was of so singular a virtue that whoso was bedaubed with it from head to heel was set free from the dangers of life, and the bondage of sin, and the fear of death for ever. So the physician said in his prospectus; and so said all the citizens in the city; and there was nothing more urgent in men’s hearts than to be properly painted themselves, and nothing they took more delight in than to see others painted. There was in the same city a young man of a very good family but of a somewhat reckless life, who had reached the age of manhood, and would have nothing to say to the paint: “Tomorrow was soon enough,” said he; and when the morrow came he would still put it off. She might have continued to do until his death; only, he had a friend of about his own age and much of his own manners; and this youth, taking a walk in the public street, with not one fleck of paint upon his body, was suddenly run down by a water-cart and cut off in the heyday of his nakedness. This shook the other to the soul; so that I never beheld a man more earnest to be painted; and on the very same evening, in the presence of all his family, to appropriate music, and himself weeping aloud, he received three complete coats and a touch of varnish on the top. The physician (who was himself affected even to tears) protested he had never done a job so thorough.
Some two months afterwards, the young man was carried on a stretcher to the physician’s house.
“What is the meaning of this?” he cried, as soon as the door was opened. “I was to be set free from all the dangers of life; and here have I been run down by that self-same water-cart, and my leg is broken.”
“Dear me!” said the physician. “This is very sad. But I perceive I must explain to you the action of my paint. A broken bone is a mighty small affair at the worst of it; and it belongs to a class of accident to which my paint is quite inapplicable. Sin, my dear young friend, sin is the sole calamity that a wise man should apprehend; it is against sin that I have fitted you out; and when you come to be tempted, you will give me news of my paint.”
“Oh!” said the young man, “I did not understand that, and it seems rather disappointing. But I have no doubt all is for the best; and in the meanwhile, I shall be obliged to you if you will set my leg.”
“That is none of my business,” said the physician; “but if your bearers will carry you round the corner to the surgeon’s, I feel sure he will afford relief.”
Some three years later, the young man came running to the physician’s house in a great perturbation. “What is the meaning of this?” he cried. “Here was I to be set free from the bondage of sin; and I have just committed forgery, arson and murder.”
“Dear me,” said the physician. “This is very serious. Off with your clothes at once.” And as soon as the young man had stripped, he examined him from head to foot. “No,” he cried with great relief, “there is not a flake broken. Cheer up, my young friend, your paint is as good as new.”
“Good God!” cried the young man, “and what then can be the use of it?”
“Why,” said the physician, “I perceive I must explain to you the nature of the action of my paint. It does not exactly prevent sin; it extenuates instead the painful consequences. It is not so much for this world, as for the next; it is not against life; in short, it is against death that I have fitted you out. And when you come to die, you will give me news of my paint.”
“Oh!” cried the young man, “I had not understood that, and it seems a little disappointing. But there is no doubt all is for the best: and in the meanwhile, I shall be obliged if you will help me to undo the evil I have brought on innocent persons.”
“That is none of my business,” said the physician; “but if you will go round the corner to the police office, I feel sure it will afford you relief to give yourself up.”
Six weeks later, the physician was called to the town gaol.
“What is the meaning of this?” cried the young man. “Here am I literally crusted with your paint; and I have broken my leg, and committed all the crimes in the calendar, and must be hanged tomorrow; and am in the meanwhile in a fear so extreme that I lack words to picture it.”
“Dear me,” said the physician. “This is really amazing. Well, well; perhaps, if you had not been painted, you would have been more frightened still.”
“John Mortonson’s Funeral,” a very short story by Ambrose Bierce
John Mortonson was dead: his lines in ‘the tragedy “Man”‘ had all been spoken and he had left the stage.
The body rested in a fine mahogany coffin fitted with a plate of glass. All arrangements for the funeral had been so well attended to that had the deceased known he would doubtless have approved. The face, as it showed under the glass, was not disagreeable to look upon: it bore a faint smile, and as the death had been painless, had not been distorted beyond the repairing power of the undertaker. At two o’clock of the afternoon the friends were to assemble to pay their last tribute of respect to one who had no further need of friends and respect. The surviving members of the family came severally every few minutes to the casket and wept above the placid features beneath the glass. This did them no good; it did no good to John Mortonson; but in the presence of death reason and philosophy are silent.
As the hour of two approached the friends began to arrive and after offering such consolation to the stricken relatives as the proprieties of the occasion required, solemnly seated themselves about the room with an augmented consciousness of their importance in the scheme funereal. Then the minister came, and in that overshadowing presence the lesser lights went into eclipse. His entrance was followed by that of the widow, whose lamentations filled the room. She approached the casket and after leaning her face against the cold glass for a moment was gently led to a seat near her daughter. Mournfully and low the man of God began his eulogy of the dead, and his doleful voice, mingled with the sobbing which it was its purpose to stimulate and sustain, rose and fell, seemed to come and go, like the sound of a sullen sea. The gloomy day grew darker as he spoke; a curtain of cloud underspread the sky and a few drops of rain fell audibly. It seemed as if all nature were weeping for John Mortonson.
When the minister had finished his eulogy with prayer a hymn was sung and the pall-bearers took their places beside the bier. As the last notes of the hymn died away the widow ran to the coffin, cast herself upon it and sobbed hysterically. Gradually, however, she yielded to dissuasion, becoming more composed; and as the minister was in the act of leading her away her eyes sought the face of the dead beneath the glass. She threw up her arms and with a shriek fell backward insensible.
The mourners sprang forward to the coffin, the friends followed, and as the clock on the mantel solemnly struck three all were staring down upon the face of John Mortonson, deceased.
They turned away, sick and faint. One man, trying in his terror to escape the awful sight, stumbled against the coffin so heavily as to knock away one of its frail supports. The coffin fell to the floor, the glass was shattered to bits by the concussion.
From the opening crawled John Mortonson’s cat, which lazily leapt to the floor, sat up, tranquilly wiped its crimson muzzle with a forepaw, then walked with dignity from the room.
Henry Dobbins was a good man, and a superb soldier, but sophistication was not his strong suit. The ironies went beyond him. In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly,slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor. Like his country, too, Dobbins was drawn toward sentimentality.
Even now, twenty years later, I can see him wrapping his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck before heading out on ambush.
It was his one eccentricity. The pantyhose, he said, had the properties of a good-luck charm. He liked putting his nose into the nylon and breathing in the scent of his girlfriend’s body, he liked the memories this inspired, he sometimes slept with the stockings up against his face, the way an infant sleeps with a magic blanket, secure and peaceful. More than anything,though, the stockings were a talisman for him. They kept him safe. They gave access to a spiritual world, where things were soft and intimate, a place where he might someday take his girlfriend to live. Like many of us in Vietnam, Dobbins felt the pull of superstition, and he believed firmly and resolutely in the protective power of the stockings. They were like body armor, he thought. Whenever we saddled up for a late-night ambush, putting on our helmets and flak jackets, Henry Dobbins would make a ritual out of arranging the nylons around his neck, carefully tying a knot, draping the two leg sections over his left shoulder. There were some jokes, of course, but we came to appreciate the mystery of it all. Dobbins was invulnerable. Never wounded, never a scratch. In August, he tripped a Bouncing Betty, which failed to detonate. And a week later he got caught in the open during a fierce little firefight, no cover at all, but he just slipped the pantyhose over his nose and breathed deep and let the magic do its work.
It turned us into a platoon of believers. You don’t dispute facts.
But then, near the end of October, his girlfriend dumped him. It was a hard blow. Dobbins went quiet for a while,staring down at her letter, then after a time he took out the stockings and tied them around his neck as a comforter.
“No sweat,” he said. “I still love her. The magic doesn’t go away.” [It was a relief for all of us.]
“Stockings,” a short short story by Tim O’Brien. From The Things They Carried.
They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.
—Chapter V of In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway