Ford's Bookshelf

The Portrait's Warning

by H. Savile Clarke
Published February 1868 in vol IV of Belgravia magazine

My friends the Mainwarings lived in Gordon-square, London, in the west-central district, and Mr. Mainwaring, a stout gentleman of fifty or thereabouts, was a musician; that is to say, he gave lessons in music, was the author of a number of songs and pianoforte pieces, and a performer of some note on the violoncello. They lived in very good style, as he had some little property in addition to his professional earnings; and the family consisted of father and mother, a lad at school, and a daughter Ellen, who at the time I am writing about had just reached the fascinating age of nineteen.

For myself I was studying medicine, and expected in a few months to pass the College and Hall, and then settle down in a country practice near my father. I had a good many friends in London, but with none was I so intimate as with the Mainwarings; and I must confess that the attractions of Miss Ellen had to answer for a good deal of non attendance upon lectures, and for my presence in the family circle two or three times a week when I was in town. Mr. Mainwaring was an old friend of my father's, and on that account, and also because I was passionately fond of music, I was a great favourite of the composer's, who used to drag me off to listen to long solos, when I longed to be talking with Ellen, and hearing the more exquisite music of her voice.

It was a pleasant house to visit at, for Mr. Mainwaring knew many literary and artistic celebrities, and was himself a highly cultivated man, and not wholly wrapt up, like some professors of his art, in musical doings and his own compositions. Mrs. Mainwaring was pleasant and motherly; and as for Ellen—it was occupation enough for any man just to sit and look at her. She was rather tall, with dark hair, and eyes that looked at you from under their long lashes in a most bewildering way; she had the sweetest little mouth in the world, and she carried her small head as gracefully as an antique statue.

The house was well furnished, and Mr. Mainwaring had an artistic but rather expensive mania for pictures; and hundreds of them, in oil, water-colours, and chalk, hung about the rooms, and in some of the passages. Of portraits especially he had a great number, not only of historical personages, picked up at various sales, but of his own friends and family, and among them several of himself. I don't like a man having a portrait of himself in his room, especially if it is really well painted and a good likeness. It always gives me an uncomfortable ghostly feeling, as if he had his double in the house, silently watching people from the canvas and endowed equally with himself with life and understanding. I speak to the man, and then catch myself looking up at the portrait for an answer; or if a thought unfavourable to him crosses my mind for an instant, I always have an uncomfortable feeling that the portrait will know of it. A man with a good likeness of himself on the wall has me, I consider, at a decided disadvantage; it is not exactly two to one, but he is endowed, at least to my fancy, with duplicate characteristics and double powers.

Mr. Mainwaring had one portrait of himself hanging in his drawing-room which I held in especial detestation for this very reason. It was an absurd idea, for the picture was an excellent likeness, by a famous artist, and meritorious as a work of art apart from its merits as a likeness. And yet I could not endure it, although I had never dared to mention my aversion to the family, who were very proud of it; and it hung, as I said before, in the drawing-room, and in a very conspicuous place. I used to catch myself watching it when Mr. Mainwaring was by with a superstitious feeling that it was on the watch, and its presence seemed to cast a shadow over the pleasant room in which it hung. This feeling haunted me from the very first, and I little knew then what terrible reasons I should have for aversion to that portrait, and what a fearful event would make its canvas suggestive of saddest memories for ever.

I often wondered whether Ellen shared this curious and morbid feeling about that particular picture; and I called up my medical experience and reading, to see if I could find any account of persons so affected. Was it nervousness consequent upon a weak state of health? Hardly that, as I was unusually strong, and by no means of a nervous temperament. Hard study might have made me nervous, but I was also a great man for athletic sports and exercises, and so did not overwork myself. There was absolutely nothing to account for my vague horror and dislike of Mr. Mainwaring's portrait, and I tried in every way to dismiss the feeling from my mind, until it was again roused in a manner that I can only regard as supernatural. My story may be difficult to believe, but the truth has been stamped in letters of fire upon my mind; and although I do not profess to explain the appearances I am about to describe, their occurrence is sadly and indubitably true.

I called one day at the house in Gordon-square, and when the door was opened, Mr. Mainwaring, who was in the passage, came rush ing up to me with a sheet of music, and said, "My dear Raymond, I am so glad to see you! I've just written such a delicious barcarolle, and you must come upstairs directly and hear me play it."

I of course assented, not without some speculation as to whether Ellen would be in the drawing-room also; but in that I was disappointed, and instead of looking on her dear face, my eyes fell immediately upon that of Mr. Vainwaring's double, the hated portrait.

Mr. Mainwaring went to the piano, and I turned my back upon the picture while he began playing his new composition. It was a beau tiful air, quaint and original, with the repose of moonlight in it, and the sound of rippling waters; the song of the gondolier in that "glorious city by the sea," where

  “The sea is in the broad, the narrow streets,
  Ebbing and flowing, and the salt seaweed
  Clings to the marble of her palaces."

As the composer went on playing, wholly occupied by the music, I happened to turn round absently while listening to it, and so came to see the portrait again.

It was lighted up by the sunshine which streamed through the win dow, and the face looked as if it was covered with blood. I should say more correctly, half the face, the left side of it; and no words can describe the horrible appearance it presented.

I could hardly control myself sufficiently to prevent Mr. Mainwaring noticing my fright; but he happily went on playing unconsciously, and in a few moments I slightly changed my position in the room, and again looked at the portrait.

Once more the painted eyes looked into mine, and the likeness almost seemed to speak; and I saw again the ghastly appearance on the left side of the face, as if it had been severely battered and bruised.

I rubbed my eyes, and tested the perfectly healthy condition of my sight by looking at other things; but whenever they travelled back to the likeness I still saw the left side of the face covered with blood. It was horrible to stand there and look from the living man to the portrait with the terrible appearance; and in a short time I made an excuse and departed. No one saw the appearance but myself, for Mrs. Mainwaring came in just before I left, and called her husband's attention to some flaw in the gilt moulding of the frame; and they both looked at the picture and made no remark upon it.

I hurried from the house with a vague and uncomfortable feeling of alarm in my mind; but I gradually argued myself out of it, and began to believe that I had been deceived by some optical illusion—coloured light from some cause or other falling on the picture, or a refraction from the lustres of the chandelier.

I was very busy for about a week after the occurrence, and had dismissed it wholly from my mind, when one day I found a telegram on my table. It ran as follows:

"Mrs. Mainwaring to Frederick Raymond. Mr. Mainwaring has had a bad accident; please come directly."

I lost no time, of course, in hastening to Gordon-square, and arrived there just as another medical man drew up at the door.

We went upstairs together, and the other doctor must have thought very little of my nerves, for on seeing the patient I started back in alarm.

Mr. Mainwaring was lying on the bed, and the left side of his face was cut and bruised; it was the appearance of the portrait reproduced on the face of the original.

And then I knew that the appearance had been an omen of disaster, and shuddered when I thought of the horrible gift I possessed of being alone able to see it.

Mr. Mainwaring had fallen on a crossing in Holborn, and his head was much hurt. I stifled the feeling of horror his injuries had at first aroused in me, and we proceeded to dress his wounds and make him comfortable; they were happily not serious, and it was soon done.

It was the summer after Mr. Mainwaring's accident, from which he had recovered with no lasting injury to his face, and Ellen Mainwaring had promised to be my wife. I had not in the interval seen any return of the portrait's warning, and I had mentioned the former ap pearance to no one, not even to Ellen. If it ever came again, it would be time enough, I thought, to take her into my confidence; there was no occasion to alarm her needlessly.

We were sitting together one afternoon, when her father came in to tell me about their plans for going out of town in the autumn, and suggesting that I should, if possible, join them in their seaside quarters. I was trifling with some fancy-work of Ellen's while he was speaking, when, on looking up, my gaze was attracted to the portrait behind him, and once more I saw the horrible appearance, but this time the whole face seemed to be covered with blood, as from some terrible wound

I must have looked strange and startled, for Mainwaring suddenly said, "Are you ill, Fred? You look very white!—Ellen, get him a glass of sherry; he looks as pale as death."

Ellen manifested great anxiety, and when her father had left the room, she inquired tenderly what was the matter with me, and I resolved to tell her all. But first glancing at the portrait, I saw that with Mr. Mainwaring's departure the appearance had gone too; but I did not doubt that if he came in again it would return.

And then I told Ellen the story of the first appearance, and how it had been followed by her father's accident, and how his face had been disfigured exactly as I had seen the face of the portrait.

She glanced fearfully up at it as she said, "And papa is going to the seaside to look after some lodgings for us! He thinks of going out of town now for a little time; and then late in the autumn again."

"A railway journey!" I said, aghast. "Can't we prevent it?"

"It would be of no use telling him about it at all," she said sorrowfully, "even with the corroboration the first appearance received. He would only laugh at it, and would never think of putting off his journey."

I knew that too well, but I felt at the same time that some disaster was sure to happen whether he went or not.

At last I said, "Ellen, if your father does go next week, I'll go with him; I shall then be at hand if anything does happen to him."

"O no," she said at first; "I am frightened for you too!"

"But the appearance did not concern me;" I returned; "so there will be no danger; at least, none of any special kind."

In the end she consented; and when the appointed time came, Mr. Mainwaring and I were speeding out of London in a first-class carriage, and swiftly leaving the city, fast breaking into lines of light, behind us. He was in good spirits, congratulating himself upon having me for a fellow traveller; but it was with difficulty that I could answer him in the same spirit, for the memory of the fatal appearance made me nervous, and filled me with gloomy forebodings.

It was a fine night, and the rapid motion as we whirled along had an exhilarating effect even upon me, depressed as I was. Every small station that we passed, marking a stage in our journey, gave me a sense of relief: my companion had got so far on his way in safety, and might continue so to the end. It was strange, seeing that any accident would probably be of an utterly overwhelming nature, that I had no fear on my own account; but the strong possibility of danger for my friend precluded all idea of it for myself.

We were passing through a deep cutting, so deep that it shut out all sight of the sky, when the carriage in which we were seated began to oscillate fearfully. Suddenly the engine gave three short sharp whistles: I knew what was coming, saw Mainwaring throw himself kneeling on the floor of the carriage,—then came a crash, a deafening noise, and I knew no more.

When I awoke to consciousness, I was lying on the side of the embankment completely jammed into the ruins of the carriage: I heard shrieks and groans on all sides, and men were rushing about with lanterns among the débris of the train.

I was bruised, I felt, from head to foot, but, as I found while I was getting out of the splintered timber, no bones were broken; and I turned to assist those who were in a worse plight than myself.

I moved to do this and to secure a lantern, when my foot caught against something, and a guard coming up at the time said, "You've had a narrow escape, sir; but I see here's another poor fellow dead."

There was no need for him to lower his lantern to the still face. I knew what he had to show me. I had seen it seven days before in a London drawing-room.

Mr. Mainwaring was lying at my feet, and his face was covered with blood, from a frightful cut across the temples.

The warning of the portrait had again come true.

I had been terribly shaken, and I was very ill for weeks after the accident; and poor Mainwaring had long been buried, when I received a note from Ellen. I had not heard anything of them, and had written once or twice, thinking it strange that none of them had written, and I seized the black-edged envelope eagerly. The note was very short, and ran as follows:

"The portrait told the truth. You must judge me as kindly as you can, but we can never marry. My father's grave lies between us.


I was still very weak, and had not been out since I was laid up; but within an hour from the time of receiving the letter I stood in the drawing-room in Gordon-square, and had not been there many minutes when Ellen entered. Her black dress startled me for a moment, and then I said, holding out the note,

"I do not forget your great sorrow, Ellen, but am I to believe this?"

"I wrote it," was the reply, and her face was cold and stern.

"But I cannot believe it," I said passionately; "you cannot be so cruel. Heaven knows I would have died in his stead to save you pain."

She shuddered when I spoke, but made no reply.

"Ellen," I said, approaching her, "I had dared to hope that my love might in some measure lighten, when years had gone by, your heavy sorrow. It is my sorrow too. Have you no word for me?"

I drew still nearer, but she made a gesture of aversion, and then said in a constrained and hard voice,

"You have my letter; there is no need for me to say anything."

"No need!" I returned bitterly, "no need for more, when you promised me love, and I believed it true? If any living man had said I should meet with this reception, I would have told him he lied. If I had died, I might have had one kind thought from you; but now you will not speak to me;" and I leant upon the mantelpiece, and hot tears sprang to my eyes as I buried my head in my hands.

When I raised it again she was gone, without a word or sign. I took up the cruel letter and staggered to the door. I hardly knew how I reached home, and again for weeks I was prostrated with a renewed attack of illness, which proved to be brain-fever.

When I recovered, I got appointed surgeon to a whaler, and for three years I heard but little home news, and nothing whatever of the Mainwarings.

At the end of that time I returned home, and with all the old love for Ellen in my heart. I had tried to forget her; I had kept the letter, and tried to steel my heart against her by reading it over, and calling to mind her heartless conduct; but all in vain. I could only remember the charm of her presence in the early days of our love, when I knew her love for me was as fervent as my attachment to her.

The evening after I arrived in London I wandered into Gordon-square, but I found the house shut up, and a placard announcing it to let. I was bitterly disappointed, although I had had no intention of calling, but a vague hope of seeing Ellen had led me there; and I had to go back to my hotel, feeling very sad and lonely.

I had come into some property by the death of an aunt during my absence, and on calling on her solicitor, who was an old friend of mine, I found it was far more considerable than I had expected; making me, in fact, independent of my profession. Mr. Lee kindly asked me to dinner, and hinted at a small dance afterwards; and as anything was better than moping about in town by myself, I promised to go, and presented myself at his house at the appointed time that evening. We had a very pleasant dinner; Mrs. Lee was kind and chatty, and the daughters lively and good-looking, and very curious about my whaling experiences, which I had to narrate at some length.

Mr. Lee and I sat for some time over our wine, as we had more business matters to discuss, and dancing had commenced when we went upstairs. I declined to dance at first, and sat down alone in a window seat rather screened by a curtain, and watched the bright figures flitting about. In a little time I heard a request for music, and someone sat down to the piano to play.

I could not see the performer, but after a few masterly chords I was beyond measure astonished to hear poor Mainwaring's barcarolle, the one he had played to me on the day of the first fatal appearance, and which was always associated in my mind with the beginning of my sorrow. I supposed it had been published; and it was evidently a favourite of the lady who was at the piano, for she played it with great feeling and expression.

I bent forward past the curtain till I could see the player; her back was towards me, but a thrill went through me as I recognised some thing familiar in the pose of the shapely head, the smooth white shoulders, and even in the flowing black drapery.

It was Ellen Mainwaring. No need for her to turn after the final chord, to make me sure of her. No need to show me the face that had been with me in dreams ever since she had left me in my agony, with the cruel letter in my hand. It was Ellen, more beautiful than ever, with added grace and refinement from sorrow; and all my old love came back upon me with a passionate intensity to which my heart had long been a stranger.

How did she come to know the Lees? She had not been acquainted with them in the days when I first knew her: but how thankful I was that I had accepted Mr. Lee's invitation!

When she rose from the piano, Mrs. Lee went up to her and said, "Now, dear, you must be tired; come and sit by me;" and they came and sat down close to my hiding-place. It seemed so strange to be sitting there within a yard of her, and not to have the right to approach her, as in olden times. I could not escape without disturbing them, so I sat still.

Suddenly Mrs. Lee exclaimed, "Dear me, where is Mr. Raymond? I have never seen him since he came in from the dining-room; I want to make him dance;" and then growing confidential she added, "he is a client of my husband's, Nelly, and as he is young and well-off, I feel it my duty to find him a wife; and if he stays in town long enough, I daresay I shall manage it."

"Who did you say was here?" said Ellen faintly.

"A Mr. Raymond, Fred Raymond; perhaps you never heard of him. I didn't know you before he left England. But what is the matter, Nelly?" she added, seeing Ellen look deadly pale. "My poor child, are you ill?—let me get you some wine or sal-volatile."

"No, thank you, no wine; but I am not very well. I think, if I can find my cousin, I will go home."

"Well, dear, sit where you are," said Mrs. Lee, "and I'll go and bring her."

She bustled off into the next room. I went forward and looked at Ellen. She sat quite still; her face was death-like, and her small white hands were tightly clasped, as if the nails would be forced into the flesh. It was evident she was suffering from some strong emotion. I could not bear to see it, and at the risk of a second repulse, I came forward. She looked up and slightly started.

"May I sit here?" I said, taking Mrs. Lee's vacant chair. She did not speak, although her lips moved; so I continued:

"I am afraid I startled you, Ellen; but you must believe that I would not have annoyed you by my presence if I had known you would be here to-night. I did not know you knew the Lees; but you must forgive me for not being able to see you without speaking to you."

She still sat with her hands tightly pressed together and her head bent down. I fancied that once more I was to have no answer, so I half-rose and said,

"I am going to leave town to-morrow, so that you need not be afraid of meeting me again."

Still she did not speak, and I rose to go away quite heartbroken. I had prepared myself for this, I thought; but the reality was more than I could bear. I had made a step to go, when I heard her say in a choking voice, "Fred."

I turned immediately, and sat down again, and then, seeing that she was almost overcome, I silently offered her my arm, and we went into a small room off the principal suite.

When we sat down she was sobbing violently, and I did not dare to comfort her till I knew my fate. At last she grew calmer, and I said, "Ellen,—forgive me, but I cannot say Miss Mainwaring,—I do not want to trouble you now, but may I call on Mrs. Mainwaring to-morrow?"

"Mamma!" she almost screamed. "O Fred, didn't you know that mamma—"

And her sobs and black dress told me the rest.

"My darling," I said, "will you forgive me? I ought to have known,—I ought never to have gone away. How you must have suffered!"

"I have, I have," she said through her tears. "Will you forgive me for going away?" I said, "and—"

"O Fred, don't talk about forgiveness; can you forgive me for my wicked injustice? I was nearly mad when you left me."

In another moment she was in my arms, and a long kiss told our mutual forgiveness.

Three months after that time we were married, Mrs. Lee insisting upon giving the wedding-breakfast, and declaring that the match was entirely of her making, and that it was all nonsense for us to say that we had known each other before.

One fact remains to be stated about the picture which had foretold so much sorrow. On the day of Mrs. Mainwaring's death, which happened very suddenly, it fell down, and striking against a table in its descent, the face of the picture was utterly destroyed. "And so you see, dear," said my wife, "we can never again be frightened by the portrait's warning."

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