The Cursed Canvas – v.2
I have a very bad habit of reading and re-reading my stories, even after I hit the ‘Publish’ button, agonising over whether I could have written them better. I first wrote and posted this story as part of Blog-a-Ton 15 and you can read it here. A few days ago, I decided to change a few parts of the story, add more details and give it a whole new ending. Feedback and comparison with my previous post is eagerly awaited.
"…and I leave all the Art in my collection, both in my private gallery and the family art museum to my grand daughter Anne Dunning."
Mr. Hailing, partner of Hailing & Pennyworth LLP, finished reading the last will and testament of Lord Wilmor Dunning and placed it in his 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 1 year ago and was witnessed by his personal butler, John and his personal secretary, Mr. De Perth. If you have any questions or doubts, now is the time to ask."
No one had any doubt as to the authenticity of the will since it was drawn up much before he had become insane. 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, Anne went into the private study of her grand father and stood before his life-size portrait. "You knew what I wanted, didn’t you, grandfather? 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 and add to them. Miss you loads."
"Are you talking to yourself, Anne?" Her father entered the study. Anne smiled, "No dad, I was just thanking the best grand father in the world."
Shashidhar was never a very bright person and hence easily agreed to sit for the Railways examination when asked by his father. Now after 9 years, when his father was no more, Shashidhar spent his day cursing him day and night for the misery his life had become. Exciting prospects of a government job at the Railways turned out to be postings in remote, desolate railways stations, initially as a clerk at the ticket counter and now as the station master. He dreamt of being posted in a busy railway station, may be that of Howrah, but he was never considered for such positions. “He will not be able to manage,” is what the Government officers used to say of Shashidhar. “He is not bright and capable enough to administer anything other than small, non-descript stops.”
For the last 2 months, Shashidhar had been posted in Chiriapole, a small stop almost on the border of India and East Pakistan. Hardly any train stopped at his station and his sole duty was to check for clearance of the tracks and wave the green signal at all the passing trains. The village of Chiriapole was nothing more than a settlement of a few families of farmers who tilled their own land and some labourers, who used to go the more bustling town of Dinajpur some 20 miles away for work. Nothing exciting ever happened either at the station or at the village and life in general was peaceful for Shashidhar. This was what irked him the most. He hated the lack of events in his life, and cursed his father for the day he promised that a career at the Railways would be rewarding.
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 with the letter to him.
"Amend the will; do not give the third painting in the fifth row in my study to Anne. It gives me creeps."
The Lord was known to have lost his mind in his last month and this might have been written during his bouts of insanity. But a sneaking suspicion and curiosity made Mr. Hailing decide to pay a visit to the old man’s mansion.
Anne welcomed him at the door. "Hello, Mr. Hailing. What brings you here?"
"My dear, I just wanted to visit the study of the Lord. There is something that I want to find out."
"But, now it’s not possible 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 Anne. He would not be able to figure out which painting the Lord was talking of. Let the beneficiary decide what she would do with the painting mentioned.
Anne wondered why her grandfather wrote such a letter just days before he passed away in a horrific manner. Even though nobody would now know which painting the Lord meant, she had spent all her growing up years studying and staring at the collection of her grandfather and so immediately knew which one he was talking of. It was one of the lesser-known works of the Irish painter Richard Diaz, who shot to fame for his depiction of Asian way of life. He was a wanderer and travelled extensively throughout India, Burma and Bangladesh, putting all that he experienced in his canvas. After 30 years of nomadic life, he settled in London in 1980. He could not enjoy the fruits of his beautiful art for long and died of pneumonia within 4 years. A lot of his work was retrieved from his shabby rented apartment after his death, which were all auctioned at high prices.
The one which Lord Dunning instructed to be removed from Anne’s inheritance was curiously titled “The Meeting” but depicted a quaint, deserted railway station without any human form. Richard Diaz specialized in bringing to life any still object through wonderful strokes of his paint brush. This one was no exception and a simple railway station, despite the absence of any form of life, seemed extremely real and alive.
That night, for the first time, Anne dreamt of the station. Every night, she began to dream 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 time, Anne woke up with an uneasy feeling that she knew that little girl. The Lord’s words came back to her – "It gives me creeps." Was he also having the same dream?
Shashidhar’s peaceful life turned topsy turvy, the moment war broke out in East Pakistan. The Liberation Front declared war against Pakistan, demanding cessation and autonomy of rule. Everyday, more and more people were fleeing from the war-torn East Pakistan to India, leaving behind their homes, wealth, memories and sometimes their honour. Being posted in this border station, Shashidhar witnessed many trains pass by, overloaded with people crossing the border to safety. He was happy with the excitement and satisfaction brought by clearing those trains and waving the flag for a safe journey ahead. He felt that he was doing a worthwhile job of helping some people to safety.
Then one day, he met Suhasini. One of the trains carrying refugees across the border was attacked by guerilla warriors some 2 miles away from Chiriapole. Shashidhar had rescued her, almost 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.
Shashidhar did not know what made him do such a heroic act. The man, who had never hurt anything more than a mosquito, hit out at the three soldiers with the spade he used for his gardening. May be it was all because of the helpless, piercing look that the lovely face threw at him. 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. Loneliness, coupled with a passionate love for the extremely beautiful woman made him desperate enough to propose to her. Dispelling all his fear and uncertainty, Suhasini gave her assent.
"The Meeting came up for auction in July last year, from where Lord Dunning purchased it," replied the young manager of the Brailey’s Auction House. "It came to us as part of the collection of Mr. Sutherland, the multi-millionaire industrialist". The moment Anne heard those words, a cold chill passed through her body. Sutherland was also known to have lost his mind completely before he died – an uncanny similarity with 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, it’s not the first time that a single painting has passed our hands more than once." Anne 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 loved to gossip, especially with young beautiful ladies. "The Countess is a perfectly charming person, but her husband was a sorry affair. He had philandered more than once in his youth and then died of excessive consumption of alcohol some years ago. But, mark my words young lady, only alcohol did not kill him. My cousin is married into the family and hence I am privy to such information. Let me discreetly share with you that his mind was not the right sorts; he even used to scream at night. The night he passed away, the maid heard him crying hysterically in his sleep. It was, of course, hushed up, to avoid any scandal or rumour of his insanity"
Consummating the marriage was not easy for Shashidhar, since Suhasini used to become rigid every time Shashidhar attempted to touch her. He realised it was because of the traumatic experience she had during the war, 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 being a gentleman, 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. After some more months, he became the proud father of a little angel – his "Sutithi". Shashidhar had no more complaints against his mundane life. He had become quite content with his world that he had created at Chiriapole. His modest living quarter in the station itself had now been turned into a paradise by his daughter with her laughter. He was already due for a transfer from Chiriapole station, but due to unavailability of his successor, it was getting stalled. No one wanted to be posted in a desolate, border station and every one who used to be considered for the same, used influence, political or otherwise, to avert it.
His work was no more exciting than what it was before but Shashidhar now had every reason to be satisfied.
Tracing the life and times of Richard Diaz proved to be more difficult than what Anne had initially thought. A search at the British Public Library archives uncovered little about the legendary painter. A lot of his life was shrouded in mystery and fiction had replaced facts wherever there was a gap in his story. Anne had to know why that particular painting was giving her nightmares and why all the three previous owners became insane before they expired. This one bit of co-incidence was not letting Anne have any peace of mind.
It was by pure luck that she came across the person who had some personal belongings of the painter in his collection. A family friend came to know of Anne’s interest in the painter and suggested that she visit the shop of Mr. Barthez, a dealer of antique items.
“Yes, Miss Dunning, you have come to the right place. I do have a valuable item which will help you in your research on Richard Diaz’s life,” the dealer assured Anne.
That night, Anne opened the diary of the painter and immersed herself in the fading ink etched in the yellowed pages.
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. He had been stationed here for the past 3 days, doing nothing except making brush strokes on his canvas. Shashidhar had been inclined to speak to him, but was hesitant due to his poor English. But curiosity got the better of him when Shashidhar caught him staring at his daughter, who was prancing about on the platform.
"Excuse me, mister. I am the station master here. I am seeing you for some days, sitting on the platform and painting. May I know who are you?" Shashidhar hoped he made sense before the foreigner.
"Who is that woman?" the foreigner was direct. Shashidhar saw that he was pointing at Suhasini, who was picking up the dried clothes from the clothes line in the roof of his living quarter. He did not like the intrusion but still replied politely, "She is my wife; but why do you ask?"
"It’s 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 making fun of me, sir? I married her 5 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. "I am a painter and I travel across the world. I have also been to East Pakistan before the war broke out. I met that woman in Dhaka and I always knew that I would never forget her lovely face ever in my life. Even after the war, I believed with all my heart that I would one day trace Rehana and here I am."
Shashidhar said defiantly, "Rehana? Who is Rehana? You are wrong there since my wife’s name is Suhasini."
The foreigner said, "What are you saying? Her name is Rehana. She was one of the most well-known dancers of Dhaka. Of course, she does not have what you would call an honourable name, but that never stopped scores of people from falling for her grace, beauty and charm. If I, for once, can claim to be in love with a woman, it’s only because of Rehana."
“I am sure you are wrong, sir. You are talking of some other woman.” Even with the conviction in his voice, Shashidhar felt it was wavering. Surprised, the foreigner asked, “If you did not know this, how do you claim that you married her?” Unable to bear, Shashidhar dropped on his knees. "I beg you to leave us in peace. I do not want to know of her past and it’s of no consequence now. I request you with folded hands to leave the station and not say these things to anyone else."
The foreigner stared at the kneeling man before him, 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 felt that this man owed the truth.
"Have you ever thought why the eyes of your daughter are blue?"
Shashidhar went still. He stared into the face of the foreigner. After a few agonizing moments, he looked into his eyes. Shashidhar could no longer doubt the inevitable truth.
The foreigner turned away, walked up to his canvas and collected the painting. With slow, measured steps, he left the station of Chiriapole, in search of another destination.
Anne didn’t know whether it was really happening before her or she was having the nightmare again. “The Meeting” had come alive and on the deserted platform, a man was screaming hysterically. He looked an average Indian man, dressed in shirt and dhoti with round spectacles and a balding patch. After a while he began to sob uncontrollably.
It was, as if, Anne was herself witnessing the eerie scene unfolding before her. She gasped when she saw a woman, lying in a pool of blood in front of the screaming man. He was still holding the kitchen knife which was swathed in blood. They looked exactly like the couple whom Richard Diaz had described so vividly in his diary.
Ann realized she was not the only one witnessing the whole scene. Her eyes fell on the young girl, staring at the lifeless body with wide open eyes.
Anne woke up with a violent shake. She was soaked in her own sweat, despite the cold winter night. She tried to remember the eyes of the young girl. They were a curious shade of blue and very similar to her eyes. Or were they?
She started trembling violently when she realized that those were exactly her eyes. Why did she feel such a strange sense of familiarity with the gory incident? Why did it seem that she already knew what happened after Richard Diaz left the town?
Was she also losing her mind, just like all other previous owners of the cursed painting?
Or did she have a deeper unexplainable connection with “The Meeting”?
Anne stared into the painting, hung on the wall exactly opposite her bedspread. After a long while, she decided to try and sell off the painting first thing next morning.
The next few days saw the newspapers filled with stories of the twin tragedy that had befallen the Dunning family in quick succession. It was speculated by many as to why the young and otherwise healthy young grand daughter of Lord Dunning died the same way as her grandfather – screaming and sobbing in her sleep. There were wild rumours doing rounds in the elite circle that the Dunning family was inflicted with a streak of insanity.
An old diary, with completely faded and illegible writing further added to the strange mystery, which no one could solve till date.