The evenings have grown long and dark, the porpy is awake from his summer hibernation and practising his quivering, the ghosts have donned their freshly laundered sheets – it’s time for terror! And what better way to start than with a classic tale from a master of horror, taken from this brand new collection, Green Tea and Other Weird Stories, issued by Oxford World’s Classics just in time to scare us all into fits this spooky season…
Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter
by Sheridan Le Fanu
Our narrator is admiring a painting of a lovely young girl, painted years before by the Dutch painter, Schalken, and now owned by the narrator’s friend…
In its hand the figure bears a lamp, by whose light alone the form and face are illuminated; the features are marked by an arch smile, such as pretty women wear when engaged in successfully practicing some roguish trick;…
But there is another figure in the painting…
…in the background, and, excepting where the dim red light of an expiring fire serves to define the form, totally in the shade, stands the figure of a man equipped in the old fashion, with doublet and so forth, in an attitude of alarm, his hand being placed upon the hilt of his sword, which he appears to be in the act of drawing.
The painting’s owner tells the tale which is said to have inspired the painting – the tale of Rose, whom Schalken, when young, loved and lost.
Rose Velderkaust was very young, having, at the period of which we speak, not yet attained her seventeenth year, and, if tradition speaks truth, possessed all the soft dimpling charms of the fair, light-haired Flemish maidens.
Rose was the niece of the painter under whom Schalken was studying, Gerard Douw. She soon grew to love Schalken too, but he was poor and could not aspire to her hand until he had made his mark in his chosen career, so he set to at his studies with a good will, and the two young people were content to wait.
But one evening, while Schalken had stayed late to continue his work after all the other pupils had left, he was disturbed by the arrival of a sinister stranger, half-hidden in the gloom of the room…
There was an air of gravity and importance about the garb of this person, and something indescribably odd, I might say awful, in the perfect, stone-like movelessness of the figure, that effectually checked the testy comment which had at once risen to the lips of the irritated artist.
The stranger asked Schalken to arrange for Douw to meet him there the following night. This Douw duly did, and the stranger revealed his name, Wilken Vanderhausen, and his purpose…
“You visited the town of Rotterdam some four months ago, and then I saw in the church of St. Lawrence your niece, Rose Velderkaust. I desire to marry her, and if I satisfy you as to the fact that I am very wealthy, more wealthy than any husband you could dream of for her, I expect that you will forward my views to the utmost of your authority.”
Now, Douw knew nothing about this man and was repelled by his appearance and manner, but when the stranger handed him a box full of pure gold ingots, he immediately decided Vanderhausen would make a perfect husband for his beloved niece, for, as he explained to the appalled Rose…
“Rose, my girl, it is very true he has not thy pretty face, but I know him to be wealthy and liberal; and were he ten times more ugly” – (“which is inconceivable,” observed Rose) – these two virtues would be sufficient” continued her uncle “to counterbalance all his deformity, and if not of power sufficient actually to alter the shape of his features, at least of efficacy enough to prevent one thinking them amiss.”
…and what are women, after all, if not chattels to be sold to the highest bidder? And so within the week, Rose is married off to Vanderhausen, and whisked away by him to Rotterdam. Weeks pass, and no word is heard of the newlyweds, and a worried Douw can find no trace of them at the address Vanderhausen had given them. But one dark night, a frantic knocking is heard at the door, and Rose is admitted, in a state of profound terror. She begs her uncle to bring her a minister of God…
“Oh that the holy man were here,” she said; “he can deliver me: the dead and the living can never be one: God has forbidden it… Do not, do not leave me for a moment,” said she; “I am lost for ever if you do…”
* * * * *
The odd thing is that I’ve read this story before and thought it was okay, but this time I loved it! This is apparently the original version of the story from 1839, whereas it’s usually a later revised version that shows up in collections. I haven’t directly compared them and it’s quite a while since I read the later version, but it seems to me that this version fills in more of the blanks, and gives it more depth. Le Fanu uses the real Schalken’s painting style, of showing figures in dark rooms lit only by a single candle or lamp, to great effect, with most of the scenes in the story being full of shadowy corners and menacing gloom.
Although Schalken gets the billing in the title, it’s really Douw, as a man who equates money with worth, and poor Rose, the victim in different ways of each of the three men in her life, who are the stars. Douw is a decent man by the standards of his time, behaving merely as his society expects, and Schalken is a weak one, putting up no fight for his love. They both fail Rose, leaving her with no protection against the horror of Vanderhausen. When the story reaches its climax, they have a last chance to save her, but will they? You’ll have to read it to find out…
It’s nicely creepy without being terrifying, very well written as you’d expect from Le Fanu, lots to analyse if you’re that way inclined, and the porpy and I found it a great way to kick off our annual spookfest! The revised version is available online, but I couldn’t find this original version.
Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
* * * * *
NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine
So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall rating is for the story’s quality.