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The Mitters of Kolkata

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The strange email ended, “Don’t leave Calcutta without seeing Doctor Mitter’s Delgado. Mitter is a queer old Eastern Indian, a Bengalee, a mystic , and a devout student of the Indian as well as Bengali Cultural Renaissance. He was born here in this city of Kolkata and has lived for years in many cities of India, exploring its remotest corners, and has lately picked up an undoubted Delgado, which came to light in a farmhouse near Ballygunge in this city. It is believed to be one of the missing pictures, and is at any rate, according to the most competent authorities, a genuine and almost untouched example of the best period.

“Mitter is a queer stick, and jealous of showing his treasures; but we struck up a friendship when I was working in Kolkata four years ago, and if you will give him the enclosed line you may get a peep at the Delgado. Probably not more than a peep, though, for I hear he refuses to have it reproduced. I want badly to use it in my monograph on the Rembrandt drawings, so please see what you can do for me, and if you can’t persuade him to let you take a photograph or make a sketch, at least jot down a detailed description of the picture and get from him all the facts you can. I hear that the Indian government have offered him a large advance on his purchase, but that he refuses to sell at any price, though he certainly can’t afford such luxuries; in fact, I don’t see where he got enough money to buy the picture. He lives in the Villa Galactica.”

Birlstone, a British guy of around 30, sat at the table d’hote of his hotel, re-reading his friend’s letter over a late luncheon. He had been five days in Kolkata without having found time to call on Doctor Mitter ; not from any indifference to the opportunity presented, but because it was his first visit to the strange dilapidated city and he was still under the spell of its more conspicuous wonders — the brick palaces flinging out their wrought-iron torch-holders with a gesture of arrogant suzerainty; the great council-chamber emblazoned with civic allegories; the pageant of the Pope on the Library walls; the Sodomas smiling balefully through the dusk of mouldering chapels and those temples and mosques — and it was only when his first hunger was appeased that he remembered that one course in the banquet was still untasted.

< 2 >

He took a print-out of the e-mail and put it in his pocket and turned to leave the room, with a nod to its only other occupant, an olive-skinned young man with lustrous eyes and a low collar, who sat on the other side of the table. This gentleman, his daily vis-a-vis, returned the nod with a Latin eloquence of gesture, and Birlstone passed on to the ante-chamber, where he paused to light a cigarette. He was just restoring the case to his pocket when he heard a hurried step behind him, and the lustrous eyed young man advanced through the glass doors of the dining room.

“Pardon me, sir,” he said in measured English, and with an intonation of exquisite politeness; “you have let this letter fall.” Birlstone, recognizing his friend’s note of introduction to Doctor Mitter, took it with a word of thanks, and was about to turn away when he perceived that the eyes of his fellow diner remained fixed on him with a gaze of melancholy interrogation.

“Pardon me,” the young man at length ventured, “but are you by chance the friend of the illustrious Doctor Mitter?” “No,” returned Birlstone, with the instinctive Anglo-Saxon distrust of foreign advances. Then, fearing to appear rude, he said with a guarded politeness: “Perhaps, by the way, you can tell me the number of his house. I see it is not given here.”

The young man brightened perceptibly. “The number of the house is thirteen; but any one can indicate it to you — it is well known in Kolkata. It is called,” he continued after a moment, “The Glass Palace .” Birlstone stared. “What a queer name!” he said. “The name comes from an incident after which all the occupants of the house decided to give a makeover of the whole palatial house with tinted glass, but whoever had so far knocked at its only main door had heard queer sound of some noises and footsteps coming from inside the house.”

Birlstone was turning away with a gesture of thanks, when the other added: “If you would have the kindness to ring twice.””To ring twice?” “At the doctor’s.” The young man smiled. “It is the custom.” It was a dazzling March afternoon, with a shower of sun from the mid-blue, and a marshalling of slaty clouds behind the umber-colored hills. For nearly an hour Birlstone loitered on the, watching the shadows race across the naked landscape and the thunder blacken in the west; then he decided to set out for the House of Glass . The map in his guidebook showed him that the Villa Galactica was one of the streets which radiate brightly, and thither he bent his course, pausing at every other step to fill his eye with some fresh image of weather-beaten beauty. The clouds had rolled upward, obscuring the sunshine and hanging like a funereal baldachin above the projecting cornices of Doctor Mitter’s street, and Birlstone walked for some distance in the shade of the beetling palace fronts before his eye fell on a doorway surmounted by a sallow marble hand. He stood for a moment staring up at the strange emblem.

< 3 >

A sweet girl who was drawing water from the well in the court said that the Indian doctor lived on the first floor, and Birlstone, passing through a glazed door, mounted the damp degrees of a vaulted stairway with a plaster mouldering in a niche on the landing. Facing the mouldering was another door, and as the visitor put his hand on the bell-rope he remembered his unknown friend’s injunction, and rang twice. There was surprise in store for him ! He thought nobody will answer his call.

His ring was answered by a portly, middle-aged woman with a low forehead and small close-set eyes, who, after a prolonged scrutiny of himself, his card, and his letter of introduction, left him standing in a high, cold ante-chamber floored with brick ! He heard her wooden pattens click down an interminable corridor, and after some delay she returned and told him to follow her.

They passed through a long saloon, bare as the ante-chamber, but loftily vaulted, and frescoed with a seventeenth-century Triumph of Scipio or Alexander — martial figures following Birlstone with the filmed melancholy gaze of shades in limbo. At the end of this apartment he was admitted to a smaller room, with the same atmosphere of mortal cold, but showing more obvious signs of occupancy. The young man felt as though he were entering a sunless autumn wood. Against these hangings stood a few tall cabinets on heavy gilt feet, and at a table in the window three persons were seated: an elderly lady who was warming her hands over a brazier, a girl bent above a strip of needle-work, and an old man.

As the latter advanced toward Birlstone, the young man was conscious of staring with unseemly intentness at his small round-backed figure, dressed with shabby disorder and surmounted by a wonderful head, lean, vulpine, eagle-beaked as that of some art loving despot of the Indian Cultural Renaissance: a head combining the venerable hair and large prominent eyes of the humanist with the greedy profile of the adventurer. Birlstone, in musing on the Indian portrait-medals of the fifteenth century, had often fancied that only in that period of fierce individualism could types so paradoxical have been produced; yet the subtle craftsmen who committed them to the bronze had never drawn a face more strangely stamped with contradictory passions than that of Doctor Mitter.

< 4 >
“I am glad to see you,” he said to Birlstone, extending a hand which seemed a mere framework held together by knotted veins. “We lead a quiet life here and receive few visitors, but any friend of Professor Chatterjee’s is welcome.” Then, with a gesture which included the two women, he added dryly: “My wife and daughter often talk of Professor Chatterjee.”

“Oh yes — he used to make me such nice toast,” said Mrs. Mitter in a high plaintive voice. It would have been difficult, from Doctor Mitter’s manner and appearance to guess his nationality; but his wife was so inconsciently and ineradicably English that even the silhouette of her cap seemed a protest against Continental laxities. She was a stout fair woman, with pale cheeks netted with red lines. A brooch with a miniature portrait sustained a bogwood watch-chain upon her bosom, and at her elbow lay a heap of knitting and an old copy of The Queen.

The young girl, who had remained standing, was a slim combined replica of her parents, with an apple-cheeked face of her father and opaque blue eyes of his dad’s better-half. Her small head was prodigally laden with braids of dull fair hair, and she might have had a kind of transient prettiness but for the sullen droop of her round mouth. It was hard to say whether her expression implied ill-temper or apathy; but Birlstone was struck by the contrast between the fierce vitality of the doctor’s age and the inanimateness of his daughter’s youth.

Seating himself in the chair which his host advanced, the young man tried to open the conversation by addressing to Mrs. Mitter some random remark on the beauties of Kolkata. The lady murmured a resigned assent, and Doctor Mitter interposed with a smile: “My dear sir, my wife considers Kolkata a most salubrious spot, and is favorably impressed by the cheapness of the marketing; but she deplores the total absence of muffins and cannel coal, and cannot resign herself to the Indian method of dusting furniture.” “But they don’t, you know — they don’t dust it!” Mrs. Mitter protested, without showing any resentment of her husband’s manner. “Precisely — they don’t dust it. Since we have lived in Kolkata we have not once seen the cobwebs removed. Can you conceive of such housekeeping? My wife has never yet dared to write it home to her parents. Actually my wife had been born and brought up in Scotland.”

< 5 >
Mrs. Mitter accepted in silence this remarkable statement of her views, and her Indian husband, with a malicious smile at Birlstone’s embarrassment, planted himself suddenly before the young man. “And now,” said he, “do you want to see my Delgado?” “Do I?” cried Birlstone, on his feet in a flash. The doctor chuckled. “Ah,” he said, with a kind of crooning deliberation, “that’s the way they all behave — that’s what they all come for.” He turned to his daughter with another variation of mockery in his smile. “Don’t fancy it’s for your beaux yeux, my dear; or for the mature charms of Mrs. Mitter,” he added, glaring suddenly at his wife, who had taken up her knitting and was softly murmuring over the number of her stitches.

Neither lady appeared to notice his pleasantries, and he continued, addressing himself to Birlstone: “They all come — they all come; but many are called and few are chosen.” His voice sank to solemnity. “While I live,” he said, “no unworthy eye shall desecrate that picture. But I will not do my friend Chatterjee the injustice to suppose that he would send an unworthy representative. He tells me he wishes a description of the picture for his book; and you shall describe it to him — if you can.”

The young Briton hesitated, not knowing whether it was a propitious moment to put in his appeal for a photograph. “Well, sir,” he said, “you know Chatterjee wants me to take away all I can of it.” Doctor Mitter eyed him sardonically. “You’re welcome to take away all you can carry,” he replied; adding, as he turned to his daughter: “That is, if he has your permission.” The girl rose without a word, and laying aside her work, took a key from a secret drawer in one of the cabinets, while the doctor continued in the same note of grim jocularity: “For you must know that the picture is not mine — it is my daughter’s.”

He followed with evident amusement the surprised glance which Birlstone turned on the young girl’s impassive figure. “Ninia,” he pursued, “is a votary of the arts; she has inherited her fond father’s passion for the unattainable. Luckily, however, she also recently inherited a tidy legacy from her grandmother; and having seen the Delgado, on which its discoverer had placed a price far beyond my reach, she took a step which deserves to go down to history: she invested her whole inheritance in the purchase of the picture, thus enabling me to spend my closing years in communion with one of the world’s masterpieces. My dear sir, could Antigone do more?”

< 6 >
The object of this strange eulogy had meanwhile drawn aside one of the tapestry hangings, and fitted her key into a concealed door.

“Come,” said Doctor Mitter, “let us go before the light fails us.” Birlstone glanced at Mrs. Mitter, who continued to knit impassively.

“No, no,” said his host, “my wife will not come with us. You might not suspect it from her conversation, but my wife has no feeling for art — Indian art.” “Frith’s Railway Station, you know,” said Mrs. Mitter, smiling. “I like an animated picture. You must be thinking, young man, that the picture is a collection from the painter Anita Delgado’s huge cache. To some extent….”Miss Mitter, who had unlocked the door, held back the tapestry to let her father and Birlstone pass out; then she followed them down a narrow stone passage with another door at its end. This door was iron-barred, and Birlstone noticed that it had a complicated patent lock. The girl fitted another key into the lock, and Doctor Mitter led the way into a small room.

“A little too bright, Ninia,” said Doctor Mitter. His face had grown solemn, and his mouth twitched nervously as his daughter drew a linen drapery across the upper part of the window. “That will do — that will do.” He turned impressively . “Do you see the pomegranate bud in this rug? Place yourself there — keep your left foot on it, please. And now, my sweet baby, draw the cord.” Miss Mitter advanced and placed her hand on a cord hidden behind the velvet curtain.

“Ah,” said the doctor, “one moment: I should like you, while looking at the picture, to have in mind a few lines of verse. Ninia –” Without the slightest change of countenance, and with a promptness which proved her to be prepared for the request, Miss Mitter began to recite, in a full round voice like her mother’s, St. Bernard’s invocation to the Virgin, in the thirty-third canto of the Paradise. “Thank you, my dear,” said her father, drawing a deep breath as she ended. “That unapproachable combination of vowel sounds prepares one better than anything I know for the contemplation of the picture.”

< 7 >
As he spoke the folds of velvet slowly parted, and the Delgado appeared in its frame of tarnished gold: Birlstone’s surprise was therefore great as the composition was gradually revealed by the widening division of the curtain.

In the background a steel-colored river wound through a pale calcareous landscape; while to the left, on a lonely peak, a crucified Christ hung livid against indigo clouds. The central figure of the foreground, however, was that of a woman seated in an antique chair of marble with bas-reliefs of dancing maenads. Her feet rested on a meadow sprinkled with minute wild-flowers. She wore a red robe, flowing in closely fluted lines from under a fancifully embroidered cloak. Above her high forehead the crinkled golden hair flowed sideways beneath a veil; one hand drooped on the arm of her chair; the other held up an inverted human skull, into which a young Dionysus, smooth, brown and sidelong as the St. John of the Louvre, poured a stream of wine from a high-poised flagon. At the lady’s feet lay the symbols of art and luxury: a flute and a roll of music, a platter heaped with grapes and roses, the torso of a Greek statuette, and a bowl overflowing with coins and jewels; behind her, on the chalky hilltop, hung the crucified Christ. A scroll in a corner of the foreground bore the legend: Lux Mundi.

Birlstone, emerging from the first plunge of wonder, turned inquiringly toward his companions. Neither had moved. Miss Mitter stood with her hand on the cord, her lids lowered, her mouth drooping; the doctor, his strange Thoth-like profile turned toward his guest, was still lost in rapt contemplation of his treasure.

Birlstone addressed the young girl. “You are fortunate,” he said, “to be the possessor of anything so perfect.” “It is considered very beautiful,” she said coldly. “Beautiful — beautiful!” the doctor burst out. “Ah, the poor, worn out, over-worked word! There are no adjectives in the language fresh enough to describe such pristine brilliancy; all their brightness has been worn off by misuse. Think of the things that have been called beautiful, and then look at that!”

< 8 >
“It is worthy of a new vocabulary,” Birlstone agreed. “Yes,” Doctor Mitter continued, “my daughter is singularly blessed. Ninia, point out some of the details to Mr. Birlstone ; I see that he will appreciate them.” The girl turned her dense blue eyes toward the young Briton ; then, glancing away from him, she pointed to the canvas. “Notice the artwork,” she began in a monotonous voice; “it recalls the face of the St. John of the Louvre, but it is more purely pagan and is turned a little less to the right. The embroidery on the cloak is symbolic: you will see that the roots of this plant have burst through the vase. This recalls the famous definition of Hamlet’s character in Wilhelm Meister. Here are the mystic rose, the flame, and the serpent, emblem of eternity. Some of the other symbols we have not yet been able to decipher.”

Birlstone watched her curiously; she seemed to be reciting a lesson. “And the picture itself?” he said. “How do you explain that? Lux Mundi — what a curious device to connect with such a subject! What can it mean?” Miss Mitter dropped her eyes: the answer was evidently not included in her lesson.

“What, indeed?” the doctor interposed. “What does life mean? As one may define it in a hundred different ways, so one may find a hundred different meanings in this picture. Its symbolism is as many-faceted as a well-cut diamond. Who, for instance, is that divine lady? Is it she who is the true Lux Mundi — the light reflected from jewels and young eyes, from polished marble and clear waters and statues of bronze? Or is that the Light of the World, extinguished on yonder stormy hill, and is this lady the Pride of Life, feasting blindly on the wine of iniquity, with her back turned to the light which has shone for her in vain? Something of both these meanings may be traced in the picture; but to me it symbolizes rather the central truth of existence: that all that is raised in incorruption is sown in corruption; art, beauty, love, religion; that all our wine is drunk out of skulls, and poured for us by the mysterious genius of a remote and cruel past.”

< 9 >
The doctor’s face blazed: his bent figure seemed to straighten itself and become taller.

“Ah,” he cried, growing more dithyrambic, “how lightly you ask what it means! How confidently you expect an answer! Yet here am I who have given my life to the study of the Renaissance; who have violated its tomb, laid open its dead body, and traced the course of every muscle, bone, and artery; who have sucked its very soul from the pages of poets and humanists ; who have patiently followed to its source the least inspiration of the masters, and groped in neolithic caverns and Babylonian ruins for the first unfolding tendrils of the arabesques of Mantegna and Crivelli; and I tell you that I stand abashed and ignorant before the mystery of this picture. It means nothing — it means all things. It may represent the period which saw its creation; it may represent all ages past and to come. There are volumes of meaning in the tiniest emblem on the lady’s cloak; the blossoms of its border are rooted in the deepest soil of myth and tradition. Don’t ask what it means, young man, but bow your head in thankfulness for having seen it!”

“Don’t excite yourself, father,” she said in the detached tone of a professional nurse. He answered with a despairing gesture. “Ah, it’s easy for you to talk. You have years and years to spend with it; I am an old man, and every moment counts!” “It’s bad for you,” she repeated with gentle obstinacy. The doctor’s sacred fury had in fact burnt itself out. He dropped into a seat with dull eyes and slackening lips, and his daughter drew the curtain across the picture.

Birlstone turned away reluctantly. He felt that his opportunity was slipping from him, yet he dared not refer to Professor Chatterjee’s wish for a photograph. He now understood the meaning of the laugh with which Doctor Mitter had given him leave to carry away all the details he could remember. The picture was so dazzling, so unexpected, so crossed with elusive and contradictory suggestions, that the most alert observer, when placed suddenly before it, must lose his coordinating faculty in a sense of confused wonder. Yet how valuable to Chatterjee the record of such a work would be! In some ways it seemed to be the summing up of the master’s thought, the key to his enigmatic philosophy.

< 10 >
The doctor had risen and was walking slowly toward the door. His daughter unlocked it, and Birlstone followed them back in silence to the room in which they had left Mrs. Mitter. That lady was no longer there, and he could think of no excuse for lingering. He thanked the doctor, and turned to Miss Mitter, who stood in the middle of the room as though awaiting farther orders. “It is very good of you,” he said, “to allow one even a glimpse of such a treasure.” She looked at him with her odd directness. “You will come again?” she said quickly; and turning to her father she added: “You know what Professor Chatterjee asked. This gentleman cannot give him any account of the picture without seeing it again.”

Doctor Mitter glanced at her vaguely; he was still like a person in a trance. “Eh?” he said, rousing himself with an effort. “I said, father, that Mr. Birlstone must see the picture again if he is to tell Professor Clyde about it,” Miss Mitter repeated with extraordinary precision of tone. The young Englishman was silent. He had the puzzled sense that his wishes were being divined and gratified for reasons with which he was in no way connected. “Well, well,” the doctor muttered, “I don’t say no — I don’t say no. I know what Clhatterjee wants — I don’t refuse to help him.” He turned to Kaczynski. “You may come again — you may make notes,” he added with a sudden effort. “Jot down what occurs to you. I’m willing to concede that.”

“You’re very good,” he said tentatively, “but the fact is the picture is so mysterious — so full of complicated detail — that I’m afraid no notes I could make would serve Clyde’s purpose as well as — as a photograph, say. If you would allow me –” Miss Mitter’s brow darkened, and her father raised his head furiously. “A photograph? A photograph, did you say? Good God, man, not ten people have been allowed to set foot in that room! A photograph?” Birlstone saw his mistake, but saw also that he had gone too far to retreat. “I know, sir, from what Chatterjee has told me, that you object to having any reproduction of the picture published; but he hoped you might let me take a photograph for his personal use — not to be reproduced in his book, but simply to give him something to work by. I should take the photograph myself, and the negative would of course be yours. If you wished it, only one impression would be struck off, and that one Chatterjee could return to you when he had done with it.”

< 11 >
Doctor Mitter interrupted him with a snarl. “When he had done with it? Just so: I thank thee for that word! When it had been re-photographed, drawn, traced, autotyped, passed about from hand to hand, defiled by every ignorant eye in England or in India, vulgarized by the blundering praise of every art-scribbler in Europe or Asia ! Bah! I’d as soon give you the picture itself: why don’t you ask for that?”

“Well, sir,” said Birlstone calmly, “if you will trust me with it, I’ll engage to take it safely to England and back, and to let no eye but Chatterjee’s see it while it is out of your keeping.” The doctor received this remarkable proposal in silence; then he burst into a laugh. “Upon my soul!” he said with sardonic good humor. It was Miss Mitter’s turn to look perplexedly at Birlstone. “Well, sir, am I to take the picture?” the young visitor smilingly pursued. “No, young man; nor a photograph of it. Nor a sketch, either; mind that, — nothing that can be reproduced. Ninia,” he cried with sudden passion, “swear to me that the picture shall never be reproduced! No photograph, no sketch — now or afterward. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, father,” said the girl quietly. “The vandals,” he muttered, “the desecrators of beauty; if I thought it would ever get into their hands I’d burn it first, by God!” He turned to Birlstone, speaking more quietly. “I said you might come back — I never retract what I say. But you must give me your word that no one but Chatterjee shall see the notes you make.” “If you won’t trust me with a photograph I wonder you trust me not to show my notes!” he exclaimed. The doctor looked at him with a malicious smile. “Humph!” he said; “would they be of much use to anybody?” The young man saw that he was losing ground and controlled his impatience. “To Chatterjee, I hope, at any rate,” he answered, holding out his hand. The doctor shook it without a trace of resentment, and Kaczynski added: “When shall I come, sir?”

“To-morrow — to-morrow morning,” cried the young lady, speaking suddenly. She looked fixedly at her father, and he shrugged his shoulders. \< 12 >”The picture is hers,” he said to Birlstone. In the ante-chamber the young man was met by the woman who had admitted him. She handed him his hat and stick, and turned to unbar the door. As the bolt slipped back he felt a touch on his arm. “You have a letter?” she said in a low tone. “A letter?” He stared. “What letter?” She shrugged her shoulders, and drew back to let him pass.

As Birlstone emerged from the house he paused once more to glance up at its scarred brick facade. The marble sculpture drooped tragically above the entrance: in the waning light it seemed to have relaxed into the passiveness of despair, and he stood musing on its hidden meaning. But it was not the only mysterious thing about Doctor Mitter’s house. What were the relations between Miss Mitter and her father? Above all, between Miss Mitter and her picture? She did not look like a person capable of a disinterested passion for the arts; and there had been moments when it struck that she hated the picture.
The great bare aisles of the nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral were almost dark when he entered, and he had to grope his way to the chapel steps. Under the momentary evocation of the sunset, the saint’s figure emerged pale and swooning from the dusk, and the warm light gave a sensual tinge to her ecstasy. The flesh seemed to glow and heave, the eyelids to tremble ; stood fascinated by the accidental collaboration of light and color.

Suddenly he noticed that something white had fluttered to the ground at his feet. He stooped and picked up a small thin sheet of note-paper, folded and sealed like an old-fashioned letter, and bearing the superscription: —

To the Honourable Vice-President Alan..
II
He stared at this mysterious document. Where had it come from? He was distinctly conscious of having seen it fall through the air, close to his feet. He glanced up at the dark ceiling of the chapel; then he turned and looked about the church. There was only one figure in it, that of a man who knelt near the high altar.

< 13 >
Suddenly Mitter recalled the question of Doctor Mitter’s maidservant. Was this the letter she had asked for? Had he been unconsciously carrying it about with him all the afternoon? Who was Vice-President Alan ? Birlstone laid his hat and stick on the chapel steps and began to explore his pockets, in the irrational hope of finding there some clue to the mystery; but they held nothing which he had not himself put there, and he was reduced to wondering how the email, supposing some unknown hand to have bestowed it on him, had happened to fall out while he stood motionless before the picture.

At this point he was disturbed by a step on the floor of the aisle, and turning, he saw his lustrous-eyed neighbor of the table d’hote. The young man bowed and waved an apologetic hand. “I do not intrude?” he inquired suavely. Without waiting for a reply, he mounted the steps of the chapel, glancing about him with the affable air of an afternoon caller. “I see,” he remarked with a smile, “that you know the hour at which our saint should be visited.” Birlstone agreed that the hour was indeed felicitous. The stranger stood beamingly before the picture.

“What grace!” he murmured, apostrophizing the St. Paul, but letting his glance slip rapidly about the chapel as he spoke. Birlstone, detecting the manoeuvre, murmured a brief assent. “But it is cold here — mortally cold; you do not find it so?” The intruder put on his hat. “It is permitted at this hour — when the church is empty. And you, my dear sir — do you not feel the dampness? You are an artist, are you not? And to artists it is permitted to cover the head when they are engaged in the study of the paintings.” He darted suddenly toward the steps and bent over Birlstone’s hat.”Permit me — cover yourself!” he said a moment later, holding out the hat with an ingratiating gesture. A light flashed on . “Perhaps,” he said, looking straight at the young man, “you will tell me your name. My own is Birlstone.” The stranger, surprised, but not disconcerted, drew forth a coroneted card, which he offered with a low bow. On the card was engraved: — To the Vice-President Alan

< 14 >
“I am much obliged to you,” said Birlstone ; “and I may as well tell you that the letter which you apparently expected to find in the lining of my hat is not there, but in my pocket.”

He drew it out and handed it to its owner, who had grown very pale. “And now,” Birlstone continued, “you will perhaps be good enough to tell me what all this means.” There was no mistaking the effect produced on Mr. Alan by this request. His lips moved, but he achieved only an ineffectual smile. “I suppose you know,” Birlstone went on, his anger rising at the sight of the other’s discomfiture, “that you have taken an unwarrantable liberty. I don’t yet understand what part I have been made to play, but it’s evident that you have made use of me to serve some purpose of your own, and I propose to know the reason why.” Alan advanced with an imploring gesture. “Sir,” he pleaded, “you permit me to speak?”

“I expect you to,” cried Birlstone. “But not here,” he added, hearing the clank of the verger’s keys. “It is growing dark, and we shall be turned out in a few minutes.” He walked across the church, and the Vice President followed him out into the deserted square. The honorable man, who had regained some measure of self-possession, began to speak in a high key, with an accompaniment of conciliatory gesture.

“My dear sir — my dear Mr. Birlstone — you find me in an abominable position — that, as a man of honor, I immediately confess. I have taken advantage of you — yes! I have counted on your amiability, your chivalry — too far, perhaps? I confess it! But what could I do? It was to oblige a lady” — he laid a hand on his heart –“a lady whom I would die to serve!” He went on with increasing volubility, his deliberate English swept away by a torrent of Scottish accent, through which Birlstone , with some difficulty, struggled to a comprehension of the case.

The Honorable Alan, according to his own statement, had come to Kolkata City some months previously, on business connected with his mother’s property; the paternal estate being near Patna, of which ancient city known as pataliputra, his father was syndic. Soon after his arrival in Kolkata the young Alan had met the incomparable daughter of Doctor Mitter, and falling deeply in love with her, had prevailed on his parents to ask her hand in marriage. Doctor Mitter had not opposed his suit, but when the question of settlements arose it became known that Miss Mitter, who was possessed of a small property in her own right, had a short time before invested the whole amount in the purchase of the Delgado. Thereupon Aaln’s parents had politely suggested that she should sell the picture and thus recover her independence; and this proposal being met by a curt refusal from Doctor Mitter, they had withdrawn their consent to their son’s marriage. The young lady’s attitude had hitherto been one of passive submission; she was horribly afraid of her father, and would never venture openly to oppose him; but she had made known to Alan her intention of not giving him up, of waiting patiently till events should take a more favorable turn. She seemed hardly aware, the Vice President said with a sigh, that the means of escape lay in her own hands; that she was of age, and had a right to sell the picture, and to marry without asking her father’s consent. Meanwhile her suitor spared no pains to keep himself before her, to remind her that he, too, was waiting and would never give her up.

< 15 > Doctor Mitter, who suspected the young man of trying to persuade Ninia to sell the picture, had forbidden the lovers to meet or to correspond; they were thus driven to clandestine communication, and had several times, the honorable Englishman of Scottish descent ingenuously avowed, made use of the doctor’s visitors as a means of exchanging letters.

“And you told the visitors to ring twice?” Birlstone interposed. The young man extended his hands in a deprecating gesture. Could Mr. Birlstone blame him? He was young, he was ardent, he was enamored! The young lady had done him the supreme honor of avowing her attachment, of pledging her unalterable fidelity; should he suffer his devotion to be outdone? But his purpose in writing to her, he admitted, was not merely to reiterate his fidelity; he was trying by every means in his power to induce her to sell the picture. He had organized a plan of action; every detail was complete; if she would but have the courage to carry out his instructions he would answer for the result. His idea was that she should secretly retire to a convent of which his aunt was the Mother Superior, and from that stronghold should transact the sale of the Delgado. He had a purchaser ready, who was willing to pay a large sum; a sum, Alan whispered, considerably in excess of the young lady’s original inheritance; once the picture sold, it could, if necessary, be removed by force from Doctor Mitter’s house, and his daughter, being safely in the convent, would be spared the painful scenes incidental to the removal. Finally, if Doctor Mitter were vindictive enough to refuse his consent to her marriage, she had only to make a summation respectueuse, and at the end of the prescribed delay no power on earth could prevent her becoming the wife of Alan.

Birlstone ‘s anger had been transformed into a surprise at the recital of this simple romance. It was absurd to be angry with a young man who confided his secrets to the first stranger he met in the streets, and placed his hand on his heart whenever he mentioned the name of his betrothed. The easiest way out of the business was to take it as a joke.

< 16 > He held out his hand with a smile to Alan. “I won’t deprive you any longer,” he said, “of the pleasure of reading your letter.”
“Oh, sir, a thousand thanks! And when you return to the Mitter’s glass palace, you will take a message from me — the letter she expected this afternoon?” “The letter she expected?” Birlstone paused. “No, thank you. I thought you understood that where I come from we don’t do that kind of thing — knowingly.” “But, sir, to serve a young lady!” “I’m sorry for the young lady, if what you tell me is true” — the Honorable Alan’s expressive hands resented the doubt –“but remember that if I am under obligations to any one in this matter, it is to her father, who has admitted me to his house and has allowed me to see his picture.”

“His picture? Hers!” “Well, the house is his, at all events.” “Unhappily — since to her it is a dungeon!” “Why doesn’t she leave it, then?” exclaimed Birlstone impatiently. Alan clasped his hands. “Ah, how you say that — with what force, with what virility! If you would but say it to her in that tone — you, her countryman! She has no one to advise her; the mother is an idiot; the father is terrible; she is in his power; it is my belief that he would kill her if she resisted him. Mr. Birlstone, I tremble for her life while she remains in that house!” “Oh, come,” said Birlstone lightly, “they seem to understand each other well enough. But in any case, you must see that I can’t interfere — at least you would if you were an Englishman,” he added with an escape of contempt.

III Birlstone ‘s affiliations in Kolkata being restricted to an acquaintance with his land-lady, he was forced to apply to her for the verification of Alan’s story.

The young nobleman had, it appeared, given a perfectly correct account of his situation. His father, Honorable Colin Montgomery, was a man of distinguished family and some wealth. He was syndic of Patna, and lived either in that town or on his neighboring estate of Mongirone. His wife owned a large property near Kolkata, and Alan, who was the second son, came there from time to time to look into its management. The eldest son was in the army, the youngest in the Church; and an aunt of Alan’s was Mother Superior of the Missionaries in Kolkata. At one time it had been said that Alan, who was a most amiable and accomplished young man, was to marry the daughter of the strange Doctor Mitter, but difficulties having arisen as to the adjustment of the young lady’s dower, Alan’s father had very properly broken off the match. It was sad for the young man, however, who was said to be deeply in love, and to find frequent excuses for coming to Siena to inspect his mother’s estate.

< 17 > Viewed in the light of Alan’s personality the story had a tinge of opera bouffe; but the next morning, as Birlstone mounted the stairs of the House of the Dead , the situation insensibly assumed another aspect. It was impossible to take Doctor Mitter lightly; and there was a suggestion of fatality in the appearance of his gaunt dwelling. Who could tell amid what tragic records of domestic tyranny and fluttering broken purposes the little drama of Miss Lombard’s fate was being played out? Might not the accumulated influences of such a house modify the lives within it in a manner unguessed by the inmates of a suburban villa with sanitary plumbing and a telephone?

One person, at least, remained unperturbed by such fanciful problems; and that was Mrs. Lombard, who, at Birlstone ‘s entrance, raised a placidly wrinkled brow from her knitting. The morning was mild, and her chair had been wheeled into a bar of sunshine near the window, so that she made a cheerful spot of prose in the poetic gloom of her surroundings. “What a nice morning!” she said; “it must be delightful weather.” Her dull blue glance wandered across the narrow street with its threatening house fronts, and fluttered back baffled, like a bird with clipped wings. It was evident, poor lady, that she had never seen beyond the opposite houses. Birlstone was not sorry to find her alone. Seeing that she was surprised at his reappearance he said at once: “I have come back to study Miss Lombard’s picture.”

“Oh, the picture –” Mrs. Mitter’s face expressed a gentle disappointment, which might have been boredom in a person of acuter sensibilities. “It’s an original Delgado, you know,” she said mechanically. “And Miss Mitter is very proud of it, I suppose? She seems to have inherited her father’s love for art.”

Mrs. Mitter counted her stitches, and he went on: “It’s unusual in so young a girl. Such tastes generally develop later.” Mrs. Mitter looked up eagerly. “That’s what I say! I was quite different at her age, you know. I liked dancing, and doing a pretty bit of fancy-work. Not that I couldn’t sketch, too; I had a master down from London. My aunts have some of my crayons hung up in their drawing-room now — I did a view of Kenilworth which was thought pleasing. But I liked a picnic, too, or a pretty walk through the woods with young people of my own age. I say it’s more natural, Mr. Birlstone; one may have a feeling for art, and do crayons that are worth framing, and yet not give up everything else. I was taught that there were other things.”

< 18 > Birlstone, half-ashamed of provoking these innocent confidences, could not resist another question. “And Miss Mitter cares for nothing else?” Her mother looked troubled. “Ninia is so clever — she says I don’t understand. You know how self-confident young people are! My husband never said that of me, now — he knows I had an excellent education. My aunts were very particular; I was brought up to have opinions, and my husband has always respected them. He says himself that he wouldn’t for the world miss hearing my opinion on any subject; you may have noticed that he often refers to my tastes. He has always respected my preference for living in England; he likes to hear me give my reasons for it. He is so much interested in my ideas that he often says he knows just what I am going to say before I speak. But Ninia does not care for what I think –”

At this point Doctor Mitter entered. He glanced sharply at the young man. “The servant is a fool; she didn’t tell me you were here.” His eye turned to his wife. “Well, my dear, what have you been telling Mr. Birlstone? About the aunts, I’ll be bound!” Mrs. Birlstone looked triumphantly at the young Briton, and her husband rubbed his hooked fingers, with a smile. Mrs. Mitter colored with pleasure. Did you mention that they never sleep in anything but linen, and that Miss Sophia puts away the furs and blankets every spring with her own hands? Both those facts are interesting to the student of human nature.” Doctor Mitter glanced at his watch. “But we are missing an incomparable moment; the light is perfect at this hour.”

Birlstone rose, and the doctor led him through the tapestried door and down the passageway.

< 19 > The light was, in fact, perfect, and the picture shone with an inner radiancy, as though a lamp burned behind the soft screen of the lady’s flesh. Every detail of the foreground detached itself with jewel-like precision. Birlstone noticed a dozen accessories which had escaped him on the previous day.

He drew out his note-book, and the doctor, who had dropped his sardonic grin for a look of devout contemplation, pushed a chair forward, and seated himself on a carved settle against the wall. “Now, then,” he said, “tell Chatterjee what you can; but the letter killeth.” He sank down, his hands hanging on the arm of the settle like the claws of a dead bird, his eyes fixed on Birlstone ‘s notebook with the obvious intention of detecting any attempt at a surreptitious sketch. Birlstone, nettled at this surveillance, and disturbed by the speculations which Doctor Mitter’s strange household excited, sat motionless for a few minutes, staring first at the picture and then at the blank pages of the note-book. The thought that Doctor Mitter was enjoying his discomfiture at length roused him, and he began to write.

He was interrupted by a knock on the iron door. Doctor Mitter rose to unlock it, and his daughter entered. She bowed hurriedly to Birlstone, without looking at him. “Father, had you forgotten that the man from Monte Amiato was to come back this morning with an answer about the bas-relief? He is here now; he says he can’t wait.”

“The devil!” cried her father impatiently. “Didn’t you tell him –” “Yes; but he says he can’t come back. If you want to see him you must come now.” “Then you think there’s a chance? –” She nodded. He turned and looked at Birlstone, who was writing assiduously. “You will stay here, Ninia; I shall be back in a moment.” He hurried out, locking the door behind him. Birlstone had looked up, wondering if Miss Mitter would show any surprise at being locked in with him; but it was his turn to be surprised, for hardly had they heard the key withdrawn when she moved close to him, her small face pale and tumultuous.

“I arranged it — I must speak to you,” she gasped. “He’ll be back in five minutes.” Her courage seemed to fail, and she looked at him helplessly.

< 20 > Birlstone had a sense of stepping among explosives. He glanced about him at the dusky vaulted room, at the haunting smile of the strange picture overhead, and at the pink-and-white girl whispering of conspiracies in a voice meant to exchange platitudes with a curate. “How can I help you?” he said with a rush of compassion. “Oh, if you would! I never have a chance to speak to any one; it’s so difficult — he watches me — he’ll be back immediately.” Try to tell me what I can do.”

“I don’t dare; I feel as if he were behind me.” She turned away, fixing her eyes on the picture. A sound startled her. “There he comes, and I haven’t spoken! It was my only chance; but it bewilders me so to be hurried.”

“I don’t hear any one,” said Birlstone, listening. “Try to tell me.” “How can I make you understand? It would take so long to explain.” She drew a deep breath, and then with a plunge –“Will you come here again this afternoon — at about five?” she whispered. “Come here again?” “Yes — you can ask to see the picture, — make some excuse. He will come with you, of course; I will open the door for you — and — and lock you both in” — she gasped. “Lock us in?” “You see? You understand? It’s the only way for me to leave the house — if I am ever to do it” — She drew another difficult breath. “The key will be returned — by a safe person — in half an hour, — perhaps sooner –”

She trembled so much that she was obliged to lean against the settle for support. Birlstone looked at her steadily; he was very sorry for her. “I can’t, Miss Mitter,” he said at length. “You can’t?” “I’m sorry; I must seem cruel; but consider –” He was stopped by the futility of the word: as well ask a hunted rabbit to pause in its dash for a hole! Birlstone took her hand; it was cold and nerveless. “I will serve you in any way I can; but you must see that this way is impossible. Can’t I talk to you again? Perhaps –” “Oh,” she cried, starting up, “there he comes!” Doctor Mitter’s step sounded in the passage.

< 21 > Birlstone held her fast. “Tell me one thing: he won’t let you sell the picture?”
“No — hush!” “Make no pledges for the future, then; promise me that.” “The future?” “In case he should die: your father is an old man. You haven’t promised?” She shook her head. “Don’t, then; remember that.” She made no answer, and the key turned in the lock. As he passed out of the house, its scowling cornice and facade of ravaged brick looked down on him with the startlingness of a strange face, seen momentarily in a crowd, and impressing itself on the brain as part of an inevitable future. Above the doorway, the marble hand reached out like the cry of an imprisoned anguish. Birlstone turned away impatiently. “Rubbish!” he said to himself. “She isn’t walled in; she can get out if she wants to.”

IV Birlstone had many number of plans for coming to Miss Mitter’s aid. He stepped into the express train for Howrah Station on his way towards Kolkata. By the time the train reached Burdwan, he was convinced that, in thus hastening his departure, he had followed the only reasonable course.

A month later, after his return to England, he was unexpectedly relieved from these alternatives of extenuation and approval. A paragraph in the morning daily newspaper announced the sudden death of Doctor Mitter, the distinguished physician who had long resided in the city of Kolkata. Birlstone ‘s justification was complete : Our blindest impulses become evidence of perspicacity when they fall in with the course of events. Birlstone could now comfortably speculate on the particular complications from which his foresight had probably saved him. The climax was unexpectedly dramatic. Miss Mitter, on the brink of a step which, whatever its issue, would have burdened her with retrospective compunction, had been set free before her suitor’s ardor could have had time to cool, and was now doubtless planning a life of domestic felicity on the proceeds of the Delgado. One thing, however, struck Birlstone as odd — he saw no mention of the sale of the picture. He had scanned the papers for an immediate announcement of its transfer to one of the great museums; but presently concluding that Miss Mitter, out of filial piety, had wished to avoid an appearance of unseemly haste in the disposal of her treasure, he dismissed the matter from his mind. Other affairs happened to engage him; the months slipped by, and gradually the lady and the picture dwelt less vividly in his mind.

< 22 > It was not till five or six years later, when chance took him again to Kolkata, that the recollection started from some inner fold of memory. He found himself, as it happened, at the head of Doctor Mitter’s street, and glancing down that grim thoroughfare, caught an oblique glimpse of the doctor’s house front. The sight revived his interest, and that evening, over an admirable frittata, he questioned his landlady about Miss Lombard’s marriage. “The daughter of the English doctor? But she has never married, signore.” “Never married? What, then, became of the Vice President ?” “For a long time he waited; but last year he married an Italian noble lady.” “But what happened — why was the marriage broken?” The landlady enacted a pantomime of baffled interrogation. “And Miss Mitter still lives in her father’s house?” “Yes, signore; she is still there.” “And the Delgado –” “The Delgado, also, is still there.”

The next day, as Birlstone entered the Palace of Glass, he remembered Alan’s injunction to ring twice, and smiled mournfully to think that so much subtlety had been vain. But what could have prevented the marriage? If Doctor Mitter’s death had been long delayed, time might have acted as a dissolvent, or the young lady’s resolve have failed; but it seemed impossible that the white heat of ardor in which Birlstone had left the lovers should have cooled in a few short weeks. As he ascended the vaulted stairway the atmosphere of the place seemed a reply to his conjectures. The same numbing air fell on him, like an emanation from some persistent will-power, a something fierce and imminent which might reduce to impotence every impulse within its range. Birlstone could almost fancy a hand on his shoulder, guiding him upward with the ironical intent of confronting him with the evidence of its work.

A strange servant opened the door, and he was presently introduced to the tapestried room, where, from their usual seats in the window, Mrs. Mitter and her daughter advanced to welcome him with faint ejaculations of surprise. Both had grown oddly old, but in a dry, smooth way, as fruits might shrivel on a shelf instead of ripening on the tree. Mrs. Mitter was still knitting, and pausing now and then to warm her swollen hands above the brazier; and Miss Mitter, in rising, had laid aside a strip of needle-work which might have been the same on which Birlstone had first seen her engaged.

< 23 > Their visitor inquired discreetly how they had fared in the interval, and learned that they had thought of returning to England, but had somehow never done so.

Mrs. Mitter said resignedly; “Ninia thinks it best that we should not go this year.” “Next year, perhaps,” murmured Miss Mitter, in a voice which seemed to suggest that they had a great waste of time to fill. She had returned to her seat, and sat bending over her work. Her hair enveloped her head in the same thick braids, but the rose color of her cheeks had turned to blotches of dull red, like some pigment which has darkened in drying. “And Professor Chatterjee — is he well?” Mrs. Mitter asked affably; continuing, as her daughter raised a startled eye: “Surely, Ninia, Mr. Birlstone was the gentleman who was sent by Professor Chatterjee to see the Delgado?” Miss Mitter was silent, but Birlstone hastened to assure the elder lady of his friend’s well-being.

“Ah — perhaps, then, he will come back some day to Siena,” she said, sighing. He declared that it was more than likely; and there ensued a pause, which he presently broke by saying to Miss Mitter: “And you still have the picture?” She raised her eyes and looked at him. “Should you like to see it?” she asked. In his assenting, she rose, and extracting the same key from the same secret drawer, unlocked the door beneath the tapestry. They walked down the passage in silence, and she stood aside with a grave gesture, making Birlstone pass before her into the room. Then she crossed over and drew the curtain back from the picture.

The light of the early afternoon poured full on it: its surface appeared to ripple and heave with a fluid splendor. The colors had lost none of their warmth, the outlines none of their pure precision; it seemed to Birlstone like some magical flower which had burst suddenly from the mould of darkness and oblivion. He turned to Miss Mitter with a movement of comprehension. “Ah, I understand — you couldn’t part with it, after all!” he cried. “No — I couldn’t part with it,” she answered. “It’s too beautiful, — too beautiful,” — he assented. “Too beautiful?” She turned on him with a curious stare.

< 24 > He gave back the stare. She shook her head. “It’s not that. I hate it; I’ve always hated it. But he wouldn’t let me — he will never let me now.” Birlstone was startled by her use of the present tense. Her look surprised him, too: there was a strange fixity of resentment in her innocuous eye. Was it possible that she was laboring under some delusion? Or did the pronoun not refer to her father?

“You mean that your father Doctor Mitter did not wish you to part with the picture?” “No — he prevented me; he will always prevent me.” There was another pause. “You promised him, then, before his death –” “No; I promised nothing. He died too suddenly to make me.” Her voice sank to a whisper. “I was free — perfectly free — or I thought I was till I…..” “Till you…..?” “..Till I tried….” She added,”to disobey him — to sell the picture. Then I found it was impossible. I tried again and again; but he was always in the room with me.” She glanced over her shoulder as though she had heard a step ; and to Birlstone, too, for a moment, the room seemed full of a third presence. “And you can’t” — he faltered, unconsciously dropping his voice to the pitch of hers. She shook her head, gazing at him mystically. “I can’t lock him out ; I can never lock him out now. I told you I should never have another chance.” The chill of her words went through his spine like a cold breath in his hair.

Contributing Story Teller:: Dibyendu Ghosal

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