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Title: The Ebony Frame
Author: Edith Nesbit
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0602551.txt
Edition: 1
Language: English
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Date first posted: July 2006
Date most recently updated: July 2006

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The Ebony Frame
Edith Nesbit




To be rich is a luxurious sensation, the more so when you have plumbed
the depths of hard-up-ness as a Fleet Street hack, a picker-up of
unconsidered pars, a reporter, an unappreciated journalist; all
callings utterly inconsistent with one's family feeling and one's
direct descent from the Dukes of Picardy.

When my Aunt Dorcas died and left me seven hundred a year and a
furnished house in Chelsea, I felt that life had nothing left to offer
except immediate possession of the legacy. Even Mildred Mayhew, whom I
had hitherto regarded as my life's light, became less luminous. I was
not engaged to Mildred, but I lodged with her mother, and I sang duets
with Mildred and gave her gloves when it would run to it, which was
seldom. She was a dear, good girl, and I meant to marry her some day.
It is very nice to feel that a good little woman is thinking of you?
it helps you in your work? and it is pleasant to know she will say
"Yes," when you say, "Will you?"

But my legacy almost put Mildred out of my head, especially as she was
staying with friends in the country.

Before the gloss was off my new mourning, I was seated in my aunt's
armchair in front of the fire in the drawing-room of my own house. My
own house! It was grand, but rather lonely. I did think of Mildred
just then.

The room was comfortably furnished with rosewood and damask. On the
walls hung a few fairly good oil paintings, but the space above the
mantelpiece was disfigured by an exceedingly bad print, "The Trial of
Lord William Russell," framed in a dark frame. I got up to look at it.
I had visited my aunt with dutiful regularity, but I never remembered
seeing this frame before. It was not intended for a print, but for an
oil-painting. It was of fine ebony, beautifully and curiously carved.
I looked at it with growing interest, and when my aunt's housemaid? I
had retained her modest staff of servants? came in with the lamp, I
asked her how long the print had been there.

"Mistress only bought it two days before she was took ill," she said;
"but the frame? she didn't want to buy a new one? so she got this out
of the attic. There's lots of curious old things there, sir."

"Had my aunt had this frame long?"

"Oh, yes, sir. It must have come long before I did, and I've been here
seven years come Christmas. There was a picture in it. That's upstairs
too? but it's that black and ugly it might as well be a chimney-back."

I felt a desire to see this picture. What if it were some priceless
old master, in which my aunt's eyes had only seen rubbish?

Directly after breakfast next morning, I paid a visit to the attic.

It was crammed with old furniture enough to stock a curiosity shop.
All the house was furnished solidly in the Mid-Victorian style, and in
this room everything not in keeping with the drawing-room suite ideal
was stowed away. Tables of papier-mache and mother-of-pearl, straight-
backed chairs with twisted feet and faded needle-work cushions, fire-
screens of gilded carving and beaded banners, oak bureaux with brass
handles, a little worktable with its faded, moth-eaten, silk flutings
hanging in disconsolate shreds; on these, and the dust that covered
them, blazed the full daylight as I pulled up the blinds. I promised
myself a good time in re-enshrining these household gods in my
parlour, and promoting the Victorian suite to the attic. But at
present my business was to find the picture as "black as the chimney
back"; and presently, behind a heap of fenders and boxes, I found it.

Jane, the housemaid, identified it at once. I took it downstairs
carefully, and examined it. Neither subject nor colour was
distinguishable. There was a splodge of a darker tint in the middle,
but whether it was figure, or tree, or house, no man could have told.
It seemed to be painted on a very thick panel bound with leather. I
decided to send it to one of those persons who pour on rotting family
portraits the water of eternal youth; but even as I did so, I thought,
why not try my own restorative hand at a corner of it.

My bath-sponge soap and nail-brush, vigorously applied for a few
seconds, showed me that there was no picture to clean. Bare oak
presented itself to my persevering brush. I tried the other side, Jane
watching me with indulgent interest. The same result. Then the truth
dawned on me. Why was the panel so thick? I tore off the leather
binding, and the panel divided and fell to the ground in a cloud of
dust. There were two pictures, they had been nailed face to face. I
leaned them against the wall, and the next moment I was leaning
against it myself.

For one of the pictures was myself, a perfect portrait, no shade of
expression or turn of feature wanting. Myself, in the dress men wore
when James the First was King. When had this been done? And how,
without my knowledge? Was this some whim of my aunt's?

"Lor', sir!" the shrill surprise of Jane at my elbow; "what a lovely
photo it is! Was it a fancy ball, sir?"

"Yes," I stammered. "I? I don't think I want anything more now. You
can go."

She went; and I turned, still with my heart beating violently, to the
other picture. This was a beautiful woman's picture, very beautiful
she was. I noted all her beauties, straight nose, low brows, full
lips, thin hands, large, deep, luminous eyes. She wore a black velvet
gown. It was a three-quarter-length portrait. Her arms rested on a
table beside her, and her head on her hands; but her face was turned
full forward, and her eyes met those of the spectator bewilderingly.
On the table by her were compasses and shining instruments whose uses
I did not know, books, a goblet, and a heap of papers and pens. I saw
all this afterwards. I believe it was a quarter of an hour before I
could turn my eyes from her. I have never see any other eyes like
hers; they appealed, as a child's or a dog's do; they commanded, as
might those of an empress.

"Shall I sweep up the dust sir?" Curiosity had brought Jane back. I
acceded. I turned from her my portrait. I kept between her and the
woman in the black velvet. When I was alone again I tore down "The
Trial of Lord William Russell," and I put the picture of the woman in
its strong ebony frame.

Then I wrote to a frame-maker for a frame for my portrait. It had so
long lived face to face with this beautiful witch that I had not the
heart to banish it from her presence; I suppose I am sentimental, if
it be sentimental to think such things as that.

The new frame came home, and I hung it opposite the fireplace. An
exhaustive search among my aunt's papers showed no explanation of the
portrait of myself, no history of the portrait of the woman with the
wonderful eyes. I only learned that all the old furniture together had
come to my aunt at the death of my great-uncle, the head of the
family; and I should have concluded that the resemblance was only a
family one, if everyone who came in had not exclaimed at the "speaking
likeness." I adopted Jane's "fancy ball" explanation.

And there, one might suppose, the matter of the portraits ended. One
might suppose it, that is, if there were not evidently a good deal
more written here about it. However, to me then the matter seemed
ended.

I went to see Mildred; I invited her and her mother to come and stay
with me; I rather avoided glancing at the picture in ebony frame. I
could not forget, nor remember without singular emotion, the look in
the eyes of that woman when mine first met them. I shrank from meeting
that look again.

I reorganised the house somewhat, preparing for Mildred's visit. I
brought down much of the old-fashioned furniture, and after a long day
of arranging and re-arranging, I sat down before the fire, and lying
back in a pleasant languor, I idly raised my eyes to the picture of
the woman. I met her dark, deep, hazel eyes, and once more my gaze was
held fixed as by strong magic, the kind of fascination that keeps one
sometimes staring for whole minutes into one's own eyes in the glass.
I gazed into her eyes, and felt my own dilate, pricked with a smart
like the smart of tears.

"I wish," I said, "oh, how I wish you were a woman and not a picture!
Come down! Ah, come down!"

I laughed at myself as I spoke; but even as I laughed, I held out my
arms.

I was not sleepy; I was not drunk. I was as wide awake and as sober as
ever was a man in the world. And yet, as I held out my arms, I saw the
eyes of the picture dilate, her lips tremble? If I were to be hanged
for saying it, it is true.

Her hands moved slightly; and a sort of flicker of a smile passed over
her face.

I sprang to my feet. "This won't do," I said aloud. "Firelight does
play strange tricks. I'll have the lamp."

I made for the bell. My hand was on it, when I heard a sound behind
me, and turned, the bell still unrung. The fire had burned low and the
corners of the room were deeply shadowed; but surely, there, behind
the tall worked chair, was something darker than a shadow.

"I must face this out," I said, "or I shall never be able to face
myself again." I left the bell, I seized the poker, and battered the
dull coals to a blaze. Then I stepped back resolutely, and looked at
the picture. The ebony frame was empty! From the shadow of the worked
chair came a soft rustle, and out of the shadow the woman of the
picture was coming, coming towards me.

I hope I shall never again know a moment of terror as blank and
absolute. I could not have moved or spoken to save my life. Either all
the known laws of nature were nothing, or I was mad. I stood
trembling, but, I am thankful to remember, I stood still, while the
black velvet gown swept across the hearthrug towards me.

Next moment a hand touched me, a hand, soft, warm, and human, and a
low voice said, "You called me. I am here."

At that touch and that voice, the world seemed to give a sort of
bewildering half-turn. I hardly know how to express it, but at once it
seemed not awful, not even unusual, for portraits to become flesh,
only most natural, most right, most unspeakably fortunate.

I laid my hand on hers. I looked from her to my portrait. I could not
see it in the firelight. "We are not strangers," I said.

"Oh, no, not strangers." Those luminous eyes were looking up into
mine, those red lips were near me. With a passionate cry, a sense of
having recovered life's one great good, that had seemed wholly lost, I
clasped her in my arms. She was no ghost, she was a woman, the only
woman in the world.

"How long," I said, "how long is it since I lost you?"

She leaned back, hanging her full weight on the hands that were
clasped behind my head. "How can I tell how long? There is no time in
hell," she answered.

It was not a dream. Ah! no? there are no such dreams. I wish to God
there could be. When in dreams do I see her eyes, hear her voice, feel
her lips against my cheek, hold her hands to my lips, as I did that
night, the supreme night of my life! At first we hardly spoke. It
seemed enough:

after long grief and pain.

To feel the arms of my true love.

Round me once again.

It is very difficult to tell my story. There are no words to express
the sense of glad reunion, the complete realisation of every hope and
dream of a life, that came upon me as I sat with my hand in hers, and
looked into her eyes.

How could it have been a dream, when I left her sitting in the
straight-backed chair, and went down to the kitchen to tell the maids
I should want nothing more, that I was busy, and did not wish to be
disturbed; when I fetched wood for the fire with my own hands, and,
bringing it in, found her still sitting there, saw the little brown
head turn as I entered, saw the love in her dear eyes; when I threw
myself at her feet and blessed the day I was born, since life had
given me this.

Not a thought of Mildred; all other things in my life were a dream,
this, its one splendid reality.

"I am wondering," she said, after a while, when we had made such
cheer, each of the other, as true lovers may after long parting, "I am
wondering how much you remember of our past?"

"I remember nothing but that I love you, that I have loved you all my
life."

"You remember nothing? Really nothing?"

"Only that I am truly yours; that we have both suffered; that, tell
me, my mistress dear, all that you remember. Explain it all to me.
Make me understand. And yet? No, I don't want to understand. It is
enough that we are together."

If it was a dream, why have I never dreamed it again?

She leaned down towards me, her arm lay on my neck, and drew my head
till it rested on her shoulder. "I am a ghost, I suppose," she said,
laughing softly; and her laughter stirred memories which I just
grasped at and just missed. "But you and I know better, don't we? I
will tell you everything you have forgotten. We loved each other, ah!
no, you have not forgotten that, and when you came back from the wars,
we were to be married. Our pictures were painted before you went away.
You know I was more learned than women of that day. Dear one, when you
were gone, they said I was a witch. They tried me. They said I should
be burned. Just because I had looked at the stars and gained more
knowledge than other women, they must needs bind me to a stake and let
me be eaten by the fire. And you far away!"

Her whole body trembled and shrank. Oh love, what dream would have
told me that my kisses would soothe even that memory?

"The night before," she went on, "the devil did come to me. I was
innocent before, you know it, don't you? And even then my sin was for
you! for you! because of the exceeding love I bore you! The devil
came, and I sold my soul to eternal flame. But I got a good price. I
got the right to come back through my picture (if anyone, looking at
it, wished for me), as long as my picture stayed in its ebony frame.
That frame was not carved by man's hand. I got the right to come back
to you, oh, my heart's heart. And another thing I won, which you shall
hear anon. They burned me for a witch, they made me suffer hell on
earth. Those faces, all crowding round, the crackling wood and the
choking smell of the smoke!"

"Oh, love, no more, no more!"

"When my mother sat that night before my picture, she wept and cried,
'Come back, my poor, lost child!' And I went to her with glad leaps of
heart. Dear, she shrank from me, she fled, she shrieked and moaned of
ghosts. She had our pictures covered from sight, and put again in the
ebony frame. She had promised me my picture should stay always there.
Ah, through all these years your face was against mine."

She paused.

"But the man you loved?"

"You came home. My picture was gone. They lied to you, and you married
another woman; but some day I knew you would walk the world again, and
that I should find you."

"The other gain?" I asked.

"The other gain," she said slowly, "I gave my soul for. It is this. If
you also will give up your hopes of heaven, I can remain a woman, I
can remain in your world! I can be your wife. Oh my dear, after all
these years, at last! at last!"

"If I sacrifice my soul," I said slowly, and the words did not seem an
imbecility, "if I sacrifice my soul I win you? Why, love, it's a
contradiction in terms. You are my soul."

Her eyes looked straight into mine. Whatever might happen, whatever
did happen, whatever may happen, our two souls in that moment met and
became one.

"Then you choose, you deliberately choose, to give up your hopes of
heaven for me, as I gave up mine for you?"

"I will not," I said, "give up my hope of heaven on any terms. Tell me
what I must do that you and I may make our heaven here, as now?"

"I will tell you to-morrow," she said. "Be alone here to-morrow night,
twelve is ghost's time, isn't it? And then I will come out of the
picture, and never go back to it. I shall live with you, and die, and
be buried, and there will be an end of me. But we shall live first, my
heart's heart."

I laid my head on her knee. A strange drowsiness overcame me. Holding
her hand against my cheek, I lost consciousness. When I awoke, the
grey November dawn was glimmering, ghost like, through the uncurtained
window. My head was pillowed on my arm, and rested. I raised my head
quickly, ah! not on my lady's knee, but on the needle-worked cushion
of the straight-backed chair. I sprang to my feet. I was stiff with
cold and dazed with dreams, but I turned my eyes on the picture..
There she sat, my lady, my dear love. I held out my arms, but the
passionate cry I would have uttered died on my lips. She had said
twelve o'clock. Her lightest word was my law. So I only stood in front
of the picture, and gazed into those grey-green eyes till tears of
passionate happiness filled my own.

"Oh! my dear, my dear, how shall I pass the hours till I hold you
again?"

No thought, then, of my whole life's completion and consummation being
a dream.

I staggered up to my room, fell across my bed, and slept heavily and
dreamlessly. When I awoke it was high noon. Mildred and her mother
were coming to lunch.

I remembered, at one o'clock, Mildred coming and her existence.

Now indeed the dream began.

With a penetrating sense of the futility of any action apart from her,
I gave the necessary orders for the reception of my guests. When
Mildred and her mother came I received them with cordiality; but my
genial phrases all seemed to be someone else's. My voice sounded like
an echo; my heart was not there.

Still, the situation was not intolerable, until the hour when
afternoon tea was served in the drawing-room. Mildred and mother kept
the conversational pot boiling with a profusion of genteel
commonplaces, and I bore it, as one in sight of heaven can bear mild
purgatory. I looked up at my sweetheart in the ebony frame, and I felt
that anything which might happen, any irresponsible imbecility, any
bathos of boredom, was nothing, if, after all, she came to me again.

And yet, when Mildred, too, looked at the portrait and said: "Doesn't
she think a lot of herself? Theatrical character, I suppose? One of
your flames, Mr. Devigne?" I had a sickening sense of impotent
irritation which became absolute torture when Mildred, (how could I
ever have admired that chocolate-box barmaid style of prettiness)
threw herself into the high-backed chair, covering the needlework with
ridiculous flounces, and added, "Silence gives consent! Who is it, Mr.
Devigne? Tell us all about her: I am sure she has a story."

Poor little Mildred, sitting there smiling, serene in her confidence
that her every word charmed me, sitting there with her rather pinched
waist, her rather tight boots, her rather vulgar voice, sitting in the
chair where my dear lady had sat when she told me her story! I could
not bear it.

"Don't sit there," I said, "it's not comfortable!"

But the girl would not be warned. With a laugh that set every nerve in
my body vibrating with annoyance, she said, "Oh, dear! mustn't I even
sit in the same chair as your black-velvet woman?"

I looked at the chair in the picture. It was the same, and in her
chair Mildred was sitting. Then a horrible sense of the reality of
Mildred came upon me, Was all this a reality after all? But for
fortunate chance, might Mildred have occupied, not only her chair, but
her place in my life? I rose.

"I hope you won't think me very rude," I said, "but I am obliged to go
out."

I forget what appointment I alleged. The lie came readily enough.

I faced Mildred's pouts with the hope that she and her mother would
not wait dinner for me. I fled. In another minute I was safe, alone,
under the chill, cloudy, autumn sky-free to think, think, think of my
dear lady.

I walked for hours along streets and squares; I lived over and over
again every look, word and hand-touch, every kiss; I was completely,
unspeakably happy.

Mildred was utterly forgotten; my lady of the ebony frame filled my
heart, and soul, and spirit.

As I heard eleven boom through the fog, I turned and went home.

When I got to my street, I found a crowd surging through it, a strong
red, light filling the air.

A house was on fire. Mine!

I elbowed my way through the crowd.

The picture of my lady, that, at least, I could save.

As I sprang up the steps, I saw, as in a dream, yes, all this was
really dream-like, I saw Mildred leaning out of the first-floor
window, wringing her hands.

"Come back, sir," cried a fireman; "we'll get the young lady out right
enough."

But my lady? The stairs were crackling, smoking, and as hot as hell. I
went up to the room where her picture was. Strange to say, I only felt
that the picture was a thing we should like to look on through the
long, glad, wedded life that was to be ours. I never thought of it as
being one with her.

As I reached the first floor I felt arms about my neck. The smoke was
too thick for me to distinguish features.

"Save me," a voice whispered. I clasped a figure in my arms and bore
it with a strange disease, down the shaking stairs and out into
safety. It was Mildred. I knew that directly I clasped her.

"Stand back," cried the crowd.

"Everyone's safe," cried a fireman.

The flames leaped from every window The sky grew redder and redder. I
sprang from the hands that would have held me. I leaped up the steps.
I crawled up the stairs. Suddenly the whole horror came to me. "As
long as my picture remains in the ebony frame." What if picture and
frame perished together?

I fought with the fire and with my own choking inability to fight with
it. I pushed on. I must save my picture. I reached the drawing room.

As I sprang in, I saw my lady, I swear it, through the smoke and the
flames, hold out her arms to me, to me, who came too late to save her,
and to save my own life's joy. I never saw her again.

Before I could reach her, or cry out to her, I felt the floor yield
beneath my feet, and I fell into the flames below.

How did they save me? What does that matter? They saved me somehow,
curse them. Every stick of my aunt's furniture was destroyed. My
friends pointed out that, as the furniture was heavily insured, the
carelessness of a nightly-studious housemaid had done me no harm.

No harm!

That was how I won and lost my only love.

I deny, with all my soul in the denial, that it was a dream. There are
no such dreams. Dreams of longing and pain there are in plenty; but
dreams of complete, of unspeakable happiness? ah, no? it is the rest
of life that is the dream.

But, if I think that, why have I married Mildred and grown stout, and
dull, and prosperous?

I tell you, it is all this that is the dream; my dear lady only is the
reality. And what does it matter what one does in a dream?


THE END




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