THE OVAL PORTRAIT by Edgar Allan Poe


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1850
THE OVAL PORTRAIT
by Edgar Allan Poe

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 END

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