He slowly turned the canvas round, and, scarcely heeding the exclamation of amazement that broke simultaneously from all the men present, stared at it himself, fascinated by a singular magnetism more potent than either horror or fear.
What a strange and awful face it was!—what a thing of distorted passion and pain! What an agony was expressed in every line of the features!—agony in which the traces of a divine beauty lingered only to render the whole countenance more repellent and terrific! A kind of sentient solemnity, mingled with wrath and terror, glared from the painted eyes,—the lips, slightly parted in a cruel upward curve, seemed about to utter a shriek of menace,—the hair, drooping in black, thick clusters low on the brow, looked wet as with the dews of the rigor mortis,—and to add to the mysterious horror of the whole conception, the distinct outline of a death’s-head was seen plainly through the rose-brown flesh-tints. There was no real resemblance in this horrible picture to the radiant and glowing loveliness of the Princess Ziska, yet, at the same time, there was sufficient dim likeness to make an imaginative person think it might be possible for her to assume that appearance in death. Several minutes passed in utter silence,—then Lord Fulkeward suddenly rose.
“I’m going!” he said. “It’s a beastly thing; it makes me sick!”
“Grand merci!” said Gervase with a forced smile.
“I really can’t help it,” declared the young man, turning his back to the picture. “If I am rude, you must excuse it. I’m not very strong—my mother will tell you I get put out very easily,—and I shall dream of this horrid face all night if I don’t give it a wide berth.”
And, without any further remark he stepped out through the open window into the garden, and walked off. Gervase made no comment on his departure; he turned his eyes towards Dr. Dean who, with spectacles on nose, was staring hard at the picture with every sign of the deepest interest.
“Well, Doctor,” he said, “you see it is not at all like the Princess.”
“Oh, yes it is!” returned the Doctor placidly. “If you could imagine the Princess’s face in torture, it would be like her. It is the kind of expression she might wear if she suddenly met with a violent end.”
“But why should I paint her so?” demanded Gervase. “She was perfectly tranquil; and her attitude was most picturesquely composed. I sketched her as I thought I saw her,—how did this tortured head come on my canvas?”
The Doctor scratched his chin thoughtfully. It was certainly a problem. He stared hard at Gervase, as though searching for the clue to the mystery in the handsome artist’s own face. Then he turned to Denzil Murray, who had not stirred or spoken.
“What do you think of it, eh, Denzil?” he asked.
The young man started as from a dream.