The Portrait

A poem by Madison Julius Cawein

In some quaint Nurnberg maler-atelier
Uprummaged. When and where was never clear
Nor yet how he obtained it. When, by whom
'Twas painted - who shall say? itself a gloom
Resisting inquisition. I opine
It is a Dürer. Mark that touch, this line;
Are they deniable? - Distinguished grace
Of the pure oval of the noble face
Tarnished in color badly. Half in light
Extend it so. Incline. The exquisite
Expression leaps abruptly: piercing scorn;
Imperial beauty; each, an icy thorn
Of light, disdainful eyes and ... well! no use!
Effaced and but beheld! a sad abuse
Of patience. - Often, vaguely visible,
The portrait fills each feature, making swell
The heart with hope: avoiding face and hair
Start out in living hues; astonished, "There! -
The picture lives!" your soul exults, when, lo!
You hold a blur; an undetermined glow
Dislimns a daub. - "Restore?" - Ah, I have tried
Our best restorers, and it has defied.

Storied, mysterious, say, perhaps a ghost
Lives in the canvas; hers, some artist lost;
A duchess', haply. Her he worshiped; dared
Not tell he worshiped. From his window stared
Of Nuremberg one sunny morn when she
Passed paged to court. Her cold nobility
Loved, lived for like a purpose. Seized and plied
A feverish brush - her face! - Despaired and died.

The narrow Judengasse: gables frown
Around a humpbacked usurer's, where brown,
Neglected in a corner, long it lay,
Heaped in a pile of riff-raff, such as - say,
Retables done in tempera and old
Panels by Wohlgemuth; stiff paintings cold
Of martyrs and apostles, - names forgot, -
Holbeins and Dürers, say; a haloed lot
Of praying saints, madonnas: these, perchance,
'Mid wine-stained purples, mothed; an old romance;
A crucifix and rosary; inlaid
Arms, Saracen-elaborate; a strayed
Niello of Byzantium; rich work,
In bronze, of Florence: here a murderous dirk,
There holy patens.
So. - My ancestor,
The first De Herancour, esteemed by far
This piece most precious, most desirable;

Purchased and brought to Paris. It looked well
In the dark paneling above the old
Hearth of the room. The head's religious gold,
The soft severity of the nun face,
Made of the room an apostolic place
Revered and feared. -
Like some lived scene I see
That Gothic room: its Flemish tapestry;
Embossed within the marble hearth a shield,
Carved 'round with thistles; in its argent field
Three sable mallets - arms of Herancour -
Topped with the crest, a helm and hands that bore,
Outstretched, two mallets. On a lectern laid, -
Between two casements, lozenge-paned, embayed, -
A vellum volume of black-lettered text.
Near by a taper, winking as if vexed
With silken gusts a nervous curtain sends,
Behind which, haply, daggered Murder bends.

And then I seem to see again the hall;
The stairway leading to that room. - Then all
The terror of that night of blood and crime
Passes before me. -
It is Catherine's time:
The house De Herancour's. On floors, splashed red,
Torchlight of Medicean wrath is shed.
Down carven corridors and rooms, - where couch
And chairs lie shattered and black shadows crouch
Torch-pierced with fear, - a sound of swords draws near -
The stir of searching steel.
What find they here,
Torch-bearer, swordsman, and fierce halberdier,
On St. Bartholomew's? - A Huguenot!
Dead in his chair! Eyes, violently shot
With horror, glaring at the portrait there:
Coiling his neck a blood line, like a hair
Of finest fire. The portrait, like a fiend, -
Looking exalted visitation, - leaned
From its black panel; in its eyes a hate
Satanic; hair - a glowing auburn; late
A dull, enduring golden.
"Just one thread
Of the fierce hair around his throat," they said,
"Twisting a burning ray; he - staring dead."

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