The artist turned sharply round, and now for the first time became aware that his labours had been overlooked by a stranger.
Within about a yard and a half, and rather behind him, there stood what was, or appeared to be, the figure of an elderly man: he wore a short cloak, and broad-brimmed hat with a conical crown, and in his hand, which was protected by a heavy, gauntlet-shaped glove, he carried a long ebony walking-stick, surmounted with what appeared, as it glittered dimly in the twilight, to be a massive head of gold, and upon his breast, through the folds of the cloak, there shone what appeared to be the links of a rich chain of the same metal.
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 effectively checked the testy comment which had at once risen to the lips of the irritated artist. He therefore, as soon as he had sufficiently recovered the surprise, asked the stranger, civilly, to be seated, and desired to know if he had any message to leave for his master.
“Tell Gerard Douw, ” said the unknown, without altering his attitude in the smallest degree, “that Minheer Vanderhausen of Rotterdam, desires to speak with him tomorrow evening at this hour, and, if he please, in this room, upon matters of weight–that is all. Goodnight.”
The stranger, having finished this message, turned abruptly, and, with a quick, but silent step, quitted the room, before Schalken had time to say a word in reply.
The young man felt a curiosity to see in what direction the burgher of Rotterdam would turn on quitting the studio, and for that purpose he went directly to the window which commanded the door.
A lobby of considerable extent intervened between the inner door of the painter`s room and the street entrance, so that Schalken occupied the post of observation before the old man could possibly have reached the street.
He watched in vain, however. There was no other mode of exit.
Had the old man vanished, or was he lurking about the recesses of the lobby for some bad purpose? This last suggestion filled the mind of Schalken with a vague horror, which was so unaccountably intense as to make him alike afraid to remain in the room alone and reluctant to pass through the lobby.
However, with an effort which appeared very disproportioned to the occasion, he summoned resolution to leave the room, and, having double-locked the door and thrust the key in his pocket, without looking to the right or left, he traversed the passage which had so recently, perhaps still, contained the person of his mysterious visitant, scarcely venturing to breath till he had arrived in the open street.”
I first encountered this story after watching a very creepy adaption of it on the BBC in 1979: Sheridan LeFanu (1814-1873) was an Irish writer and magazine editor, who was also well known for his supernatural and mystery fiction. He was instrumental in edging supernatural fiction away from it`s melodramatic Gothic roots and towards a more internalized, psychological perspective; the terror created in the mind was a much more interesting, natural and forceful instrument of mental torture to unsettle and frighten his readers.
As a man of culture, who would no doubt have seen the works of the Old Dutch Masters, it would not have been surprising if he had not been aware of those real life painters, Godfrey Schalken and Gerard Douw which hang upon so many walls around the world. The dark, moody lighting so favoured by Rembrandt and his near contemporaries would, no doubt, have drawn his interest as to what disturbing apparitions could be lurking in the enveloping shadows which enveloped the canvas like a sombre shroud.
As the sonorous boom of the Stadhouse clock slowly, and methodically struck seven, Shalken and Gerard Douw waited as the last peal of the bell ceased to vibrate……………
“Here he comes, sir,” said Schalken, in a low monitory tone; and instantly, upon turning towards the door, Gerard Douw observed the same figure which had, on the day before, so unexpectedly greeted his pupil Schalken.
“……….I have the honour to Minheer Vanderhausen of Rotterdam?” said Gerard Douw.
“The same,” was the laconic reply of his visitor.
“Is that a man of trust?” said Vanderhausen, turning towards Schalken, who stood at a little distance behind his master.
“Certainly,” replied Gerard.
“Then let him take this box, and get the nearest jeweler or goldsmith to value it`s contents, and let him return hither with a certificate of the valuation.”
Schalken scuttles away on his errand……………Finds a goldsmith, and empties the contents of Vanderhausen`s small box onto a desk: closely packed gold ingots fell from the lead lined casket which were discovered, after close scrutiny, to be perfect; not a single grain of alloy could be found to blemish it`s almost, unnatural golden wonder. Of course, the gold was a suitable inducement to Douw`s magpie greed, by way of a signed and sealed agreement of Douw`s beautiful young niece in marriage to Vanderhausen.
“I cannot tarry with you to-night more than a few minutes, and so I shall shortly tell the matter upon which I come. 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 that I am wealthier than any husband you can dream of for her, I expect that you will forward my suit with your authority. If you approve my proposal, you must close with it here and now, for I cannot wait for calculations and delays.”
Despite his misgivings at the unusual nature and personality of the man who stood in his studio, and of “selling” his young niece to someone not of her choosing, his lust for the financial benefits the union could bring him overcame his reservations, and a deal was struck. His niece was sold, he was about to become a rich man, and life seemed perfect in every way.
“As to my respectability,” said the stranger, drily, “you must take that for granted at present; pester me with no inquiries; you can discover no more about me than I choose to make known. You shall have sufficient security for my respectability–my word, if you are honourable: if you are sordid, my gold.”
Vanderhausen desires to see the “merchandise” the next evening after Gerard Douw has signed the contract of marriage which Vanderhausen has produced, and been witnessed by Schalken, who is about to unknowingly lose his beloved Rose.
The next evening arrives, with Gerard Douw, Schalken and Rose awaiting their expected visitor: at nine o`clock there is a knock on the front door; followed by a slow, emphatic tread upon the staircase and across the lobby; the door slowly opens, to reveal an apparition which shocked and appalled the people who gazed upon it with disbelieving incredulity. For the first time his face was no longer shrouded in shadow: his dress seemed suitably sumptuous and unusual enough, apart from it`s opulence and obvious wealth. The face though: was it flesh which hung from the cheeks, a bluish leaden hue? The eyes were muddy white, like sour milk which had curdled in a slop bucket for weeks. The cruel, unwelcoming lips were almost black: the spectacle which stood before them, almost satanically evil and malignant, induced Rose to scream with fright.
Hardly a word was spoken during a visit which mercifully ended when Vanderhausen suddenly rose from his chair and moved towards the door in his odd, clockwork gate, as if his limbs were either moving from the scratchy recollection of a long dead memory, or by the hands of another spirit, like the movements of a puppet. Rose thought he looked exactly like an old painted figure that use to frighten her in the church of St Lawrence, Rotterdam. Gerard Douw decided to bury the unease which threatened to consume him by the pleasant thought of becoming an important man of wealth and influence, thanks to the beauty of his niece.
Within a week, the contract of marriage was carried out, and Schalken saw the love of his life whisked away by his repulsive rival. Months passed, and no word from his niece: the monies which arrived quarterly as payment for selling his niece lay unclaimed in Douw`s hands; his worries and concerns began to consume him. He made inquiries concerning the hire of the marriage coach, and where it had gone with his niece: of how it had been waylaid by human shadows on the way to Rotterdam, and Vanderhausen and his niece ushered into an antique, plush litter, which speedily carried them towards the city and into the darkness of the night.
Some time later, Douw and Schalken sat sombrely by the fire, when Rose burst in and fell to the ground: she wore what appeared to be a grimy, white woolen burial shroud, which covered her from neck to the ground. She demanded, “Wine! wine, quickly, or I`m lost! Send for a minister of God, I am not safe till he comes; send for him speedily…………He can deliver me: the dead and the living can never be one: God has forbidden it.”
Taking her into Douw`s private apartment to rest, she suddenly stops and shouts in sheer terror………“Oh God! he is here! he is here! See! see! there he goes!”
Schalken saw shadows moving across walls and furniture like a feral wisp of smoke; drew his sword, and raising his candle to throw light into the room, moved forward to confront what he thought he had seen. Nothing. “I saw him,” said she; he`s here. I cannot be deceived; I know him; he`s by me; he is with me; he`s in the room. Then, for God`s sake, as you would save me, do not stir from beside me.”
It never happens, of course: otherwise there would be no grand denouement to entertain, and shock us with; the lady is left on her own as the menfolk wander off to consider their next course of action. There is suddenly a loud noise from the room: crashing; shouting; screams so agonized as to be hardly human at all fill their ears; they hear the bolts of the latticed windows drawn; the noise as it is thrown violently open; then a light tread crosses the floor and the door opens. Nothing. The room is empty; the window onto the street is gaping wide, gazing with sightless eyes into the endless darkness of night. Rose is gone.
Schalken the Painter is a seminal work of supernatural fiction which heralded the genre into a new era: it gives us atmosphere and suggestion, where once had resided the crash, bang, wallop of emotionally overwrought, Gothic vigor. LeFanu takes us on a guided tour of the mystery, and imagination of the human mind: the terrors which lie there within the deep shadow lands of our thoughts, are far more deadly and dangerous than a corporeal creature with bolts through it`s neck……..Only in our nightmares can the dead and the living be one.