The Cursed Canvas
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“…and I leave all the art in my collection, both in my private gallery and the family art museum to my grand daughter Alvira Dunning.”
Mr. Hailing, partner of Hailing & Pennyworth LLP, folded the last will and testament of Lord Wilmor Dunning and placed it in the folder. He looked around at the various family members of the deceased and declared in a solemn voice, “That’s all. It was drawn up some 6 months ago and has been witnessed by his personal butler and Mr. De Perth, his personal secretary. If you have any questions or doubts, please shoot away.”
No one had any doubt as to the authenticity of the will. The deceased had left his entire estate perfectly divided among his 2 sons and 3 daughters, along with 4 grandchildren. Some had been left for charity and a major chunk had been allotted in the name of the family trust. Late Wilmor Dunning had made a perfect bequest.
His eldest grand daughter, Alvira went into the private study of her grand father and stood before his life-size portrait. “You knew what I wanted, didn’t you, grandpa? You were the only one to whom I had disclosed my secret wish to study Art and you readily encouraged me. Thank you so much for the collection, I shall always preserve them. Miss you loads.”
“Are you talking to yourself, Alvira?” her father entered the study. Alvira smiled, “No dad, I was just thanking the best grand father in the world.”
Shashidhar looked at his newly wedded wife, sitting at the far edge of his bed. He didn’t know whether she loved him or not, but he was madly and crazily in love with this woman. Had it been other times, she might have never even glanced at his way, but now she was his lawfully wedded wife.
He sensed the knot in his stomach, even though he could only see her feet and arms, while her face was covered in a blue veil. It was difficult to find the proper bridal finery and he got the best that was available at the local market, some 20 kms away. His dream of dressing her up in fiery red sari and veil could not be fulfilled and he had to manage with green and blue – a total mismatch.
“Are you happy?” the moment he asked the question, he realised how stupid it sounded. Of course, she was not happy. She should have married some one of her own station, and not a poor station master.
She nodded her head. He could not decipher whether she was saying yes or no under the veil. Throwing him completely off guard, she spoke, “I am very happy. I thank you for all that you have done for me.”
Mr. Hailing stared at the letter unbelievingly. The date indicated that it was written 6 days before his death, but was never posted by the Lord. Today, his butler brought the unsealed envelope to him, which was discovered among his many papers.
“Amend the will; do not give the third painting in the fifth row in my study to Alvira. It gives me creeps.”
The Lord was known to have lost his mind in his last month. But what did this mean? Mr. Hailing decided to pay a visit to the old man’s mansion.
Alvira welcomed him at the door. “Hello, Mr. Hailing. What brings you here?”
“My dear, I just wanted to visit the study of Lord. There is something that I want to find out.”
“But, now its impossible to go there. The floor had to be reworked due to the cracks that had developed over the years and now that room is under construction.”
“What about the paintings on the wall? Are they still there?”
“They all have been relocated to the gallery for the time being.”
Mr. Hailing sighed. There was nothing much for him to do except hand over the scribbled letter to Alvira. He would not be able to figure out which painting the Lord was talking of. Moreover, he thought that it was written during his bouts of insanity. Let the beneficiary decide what she would do with the painting mentioned.
Alvira wondered why her grandfather wrote such a strange thing. Even though anybody else would not know but she had spent all her growing up years studying and staring at them and immediately knew which one he was talking of.
That night, for the first time, she dreamt of the station. And the night after, too. Every night, she started dreaming of the station and each time it was the same. She dreamt of a little girl running around in an otherwise deserted station. Her laughter would fill the air and her giggles would resonate everywhere. Every morning, Alvira woke up with an uneasy feeling that she somehow knew that little girl. The Lord’s words came back to her – “It gives me creeps.” Was he also having the same dream?
She was bent over the stove, blowing with all her might to ignite the coal embers. He looked at her and felt the familiar guilt. He always thought that he had wronged her by tying her to himself for life. Those were turbulent times, when thousands of immigrants were fleeing from East Pakistan to India, leaving behind their homes, wealth, memories and sometimes their honour. Being posted in this station of Chiriapole on the border of East Pakistan and India, he had witnessed many trains pass by, overloaded with people crossing the border to safety. They never stopped at his station, since all the passengers wanted to set foot on the other side of the border as soon as possible. His life wasd uneventful, until he met Suhasini on the day guerrillas attacked a train 2 miles away from his station. He had rescued her, senseless, even as three of the soldiers were trying to tear away her clothes. Military troop arrived a little later, resulting in further bloodshed and mayhem.
Suhasini didn’t speak for 2 weeks, which Shashidhar took as signs of trauma. He failed to gather any information from her about her family and it seemed that she had lost her memory. After a month, when she had almost recovered, he proposed to her and was completely surprised to receive her immediate assent.
It was difficult to consummate the marriage, since Suhasini used to become rigid every time Shashidhar touched her. He knew it was because of the traumatic experience she had, but could not help but wonder whether he would ever have her fully as his wife. His passion for her burnt him from inside but he never forced her. After 3 months of their wedding, Suhasini finally responded to him. Sometimes, when he looked back at that night, he wondered whether it was she who had initiated the lovemaking. Life had been great ever since and now he was the proud father of a little angel – his “Sutithi”.
“This particular painting came up for auction in July last year, from where Lord Dunning purchased it,” replied the young manager of the Art Auction House. “It came to us as part of the collection of Mr. Sutherland, the multi-millionaire industrialist; the same Sutherland who was rumoured to have lost his mind completely before he died”. The moment Alvira heard those words, a cold chill passed through her body. This was an uncanny similarity between the previous owner and her grandfather.
She further enquired, “Is it possible to trace the owner before Sutherland?”
He replied with confidence, “Yes, of course. We auctioned it 5 years ago to one of our most revered patrons, Lady Mary Ale, the Countess of Northbrook. Being the largest Auction House of Great Britain, and this one being one of the lesser known works of the legendary artist Richard Diaz, its not uncommon that it passed our hands more than once.” Alvira heaved a sigh of relief. Lady Mary Ale was still alive and had not shown any signs of insanity. Perhaps she was being too hasty in formulating her theory.
The manager surely loved to gossip, especially with young beautiful ladies. “The Countess is a perfectly charming person, but her husband was a sorry affair. He was always the casanova type in his youth and recently, he died of excessive consumption of alcohol. But, mark my words young lady, only alcohol did not kill him; his mind was not the right sorts. My cousin is married into the family and hence I am privy to such information, which I am discreetly sharing with you. I have heard that he used to scream in his sleep.”
Shashidhar had seen the white man for a while now, sitting at one corner of the station for the whole day in front of a canvas. But the moment Shashidhar caught him staring at Suhasini for the third time, he decided it was time to speak to the man.
“Excuse me, mister. May I know what do you want?” Shashidhar hoped he was speaking correct English.
“Who is that woman?” the foreigner was direct. Shashidhar became angry. “She is my wife; but why do you ask?”
“What the hell! Its impossible. I know that face very well and I am sure she is not your wife. In fact, she cannot be anybody’s wife,” exclaimed the foreigner.
Shashidhar laughed nervously. “Why are you joking, sir? I married her 6 years ago and we have a daughter. You are a visitor here and I would request you not to say such things any more.”
The white man looked intently into Shashidhar’s face. “Sir, my name is Richard Diaz and I am a painter. I travel across the world and I have also been to East Pakistan before war broke out. I met that woman in Dhaka and I always knew that I would never forget that lovely face ever in my life. Even after the war, I believed with all my heart that I would one day trace Rehana.”
Shashidhar screamed, “Rehana?”
The foreigner said, “Of course, it will be difficult for you to digest the fact that she does not have what you would call an honourable name, but I, like many of her admirers, loved her with all my heart.”
Shashidhar dropped on his knees. “I beg you to leave us in peace. I do not want to know of her past and its of no consequence now. I request you with folded hands to leave the station and not say such things to anyone else.”
The foreigner stared at the man before him, kneeled down with tears flowing down his cheeks. If he agreed to leave, he would be leaving behind a lot more than his love for Rehana. He had to tell this man the truth. “Have you ever thought why the eyes of your daughter are blue?” With this final question, the foreigner turned away, walked up to his canvas and collected the painting of the station he had been making all this while. With slow, measured steps, he left the station of Chiriapole.
Alvira didn’t know whether it was really happening before her or she was having the nightmare again. That station and the platform of the painting had come alive and on it, a man was screaming hysterically. His brown skin and black hair suggested that he could be Asian, or more precisely Indian. Alvira wanted to ask him why he was crying but just then, she saw the woman, lying in a pool of blood. Sweat ran across her whole body and she wanted to run away from that place. At that moment, she saw the young girl, staring at the scene just like herself, with wide open eyes.
Alvira woke up with a violent shake. Those were exactly her eyes.
Was she also losing her mind, just like all the previous owners of the cursed canvas?